Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Mad Science: Three Looks at the Tablet Wars Edition

Good morning, and happy Friday. Let's get to it, shall we?
PFC Badley Manning
in happier times.
U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning is expected to testify at his trial in the Wikileaks case soon, and apparently he's going to argue that he’s been “punished enough” given the nature of his initial confinement. According to reports, he was held in solitary confinement for eight months without clothes, blankets, or bed sheets, ostensibly because he was considered a suicide risk. However, repeated evaluations supposedly showed that after some time had passed, doctors didn't consider him at risk of hurting himself at all; it seems that he was just a very weird dude. And while I can confirm that I have no special knowledge of this case whatsoever, it's not at all hard to imagine that the military would treat this guy in whatever the worst possible circumstances were that they could justify. Given that he was apparently acting at least very strange, well... I'm gonna go ahead and doubt that Manning's lawyers can prove he got anything less than what he had coming.
With that in mind, I think it's important to remember that while Manning has been charged with some very serious crimes, he’s still lucky after a fashion. I mean, he hasn’t been charged with Treason, which is a little weird if you ask me considering that he was charged with “aiding the enemy.” Frankly, I've no idea what the difference is, save that Treason carries the Death Penalty. So, bottom line, no matter what has already happened to Manning, as his lawyer, I’d be tempted to tell the guy that he ought to shut his mouth regardless. The government could probably execute him, legally speaking, given what he’s done, and it's worth remembering that our current President has already shown a willingness to do exactly that to people who piss him off, even American citizens.

I don’t know if you’ve used Windows 8 yet, but I’ve tried it several times, and I hate it. So I was shocked to see that Windows 8 sales are outpacing similar sales of Windows 7 over 7's initial sales runs, which is surprising because I thought Windows 7 was an excellent product. Moreover, the new sales numbers have been driven by upgrades apparently and not by the sales of new devices.
Now, supposedly Windows 8 has been much cheaper than Windows 7 was over its initial run, and maybe that’s what’s driving the difference, but 8 is such an inferior product that frankly I don’t understand why people want it at all. Personally, if this is the way of the future for Windows, I’ll be buying a different operating system from now on, and God only knows how I'm gonna manage that next time I have to upgrade our family's primary machine.
But maybe I'm the only one? Who know?
You can go ahead and get used to the idea of NJ Governor Chris Christie as a successful national-level political figure. He’s about as popular right now as it is technically possible for him to be.
What’s interesting to me is how Hurricane Sandy is potentially shaping the 2016 Presidential Race. Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are both believed to be mulling presidential runs in 2016, and if that’s the case, then Sandy is the opportunity for them to show their skills to the public at large. Christie responded to the storm with a show of bipartisanism and what I personally think was a masterful handling of the actual crisis itself. His state was hit harder than New York and seems to be recovering at least as fast. Cuomo, meanwhile, is pushing Congress for $42B in aid to New York State with which it is believed he’ll try to not only rebuild but also basically redesign the state's downstate infrastructure in order to better withstand what he’s on record as saying are ever more likely future big-time storms. I have no idea if that will work—or even if it’s possible—but I think it’s visionary thinking in any case, and I’m looking forward to seeing what, if any, specifics come out of the studies its going to spawn.
Also, while it might seem like Christie and Cuomo would be natural allies in the fight to get more and better aid from the Federal Government for the Northeast post-Sandy, the fact is that they’re not. At all. Christie is a Republican and Cuomo is a Democrat, and they’re going to be competing for the same home turf in the same national election on potentially the same issue. So I’m not saying that the Hudson River is America’s new internal DMZ, but I’m also not expecting too many kind words to cross the river, either.
At any rate, it's going to be an interesting time, let me tell you.
While we're on the subject of operating systems and Windows 8, it's worth noting that computer makers are still trying to figure out what to do with the tablet computer revolution. With the advent of Windows 8 and the proved popularity of the iPad, companies are scrambling to find ways to differentiate themselves from the pack—and from the market's extant successful products—with the upshot being that there’s a lot more potential processing power and basic raw ability in even an iPhone than there was in a full-sized desktop a mere ten or fifteen years ago. I mean, if you wanted to, you could easily do real work with just your cell phone! But there’s no proven way to go from tablet to computer yet, and while lots of companies are trying to make a single all-purpose world-beating device, it doesn't seem like anyone has yet figured out exactly how to do it—or even what a single all-purpose device is supposed to look like.
If you're wondering, the hyper-linked article above covers a pair of new notebook/tablet hybrids, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 and Toshiba's Satellite U925t. It's worth noting that both machines come with full keyboards and are clearly meant for real work, and indeed, given that both provide laptop power in tablet size, both cost more like what you’d expect to pay for a full—and fully capable—laptop than they would if they were competing solely as tablets.

Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga 13
What? That's not enough on the Tablet Wars? Okay, how about the new Virtual Reality Glasses Wars?
What I want to know is this: don't you have to have a working prototype of a thing in order to patent it? I mean, don't you have to have invented it in order to hold the rights to the invention? Because I looked at Microsoft's patent illustrations, and I have to call bullshit on what they're claiming to be able to do. Is it possible? Sure, it probably is. But do they have a working copy? Maybe they do, but they sure as Hell haven't shown it to anyone.
Well, besides taking a minute to crow about how much the NY Giants kicked ass last weekend, I don't have much else. I will, however, say that this has been a banner month in terms of readership, so if you're new here, let me just say thanks for stopping by.
With that said, I'd really, really like to get some more commenters. I know that folks are reading because I have stats that tell me they are, and in a lot of cases, folks that I know tell me that they like the blog. And that's awesome. It really is. But what makes a place like this addictive is conversation. Yeah, I have Alan and Tony Laplume (a fine blogger in his own right), but what I really need is more folks who have an opinion and want to express it.
Is that you? It could be.
So. Tell me what you like. Tell me what you hate. Tell me when you think I've got my head up my ass. It's cool. I may not agree, especially with the later, but the forum is here for you to speak your mind, and I'd love it if you'd avail yourselves. And yeah, I know you can't leave anonymous comments, but you can make up a funny name and post that way, and God knows that people have. It's not a problem. Enjoy! And make yourselves at home.

Friday Hair Metal: Sultans of Swing

I looked for the version of this song played by that old bastard who owned that bar in Seoul--if you've ever been stationed near there, you have to know the one I'm talking about.  I can't remember it's name, but that's inevitably where we start our nights, before we were drunk enough that heading up The Hill seemed like a good idea.

Anyway, this song has been one of my favorites ever since.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Clerics and Alternate Classes in D&D Next

One thing that I couldn’t help noticing in our recent D&D Next Playtest sessions was that my wife’s cleric character, Melora MacGonagal, was vastly more powerful than the other characters in our game--at least when I was playing her.  That continues a trend that I first noticed in the 4th Edition but which is probably a lot older than that, i.e. since it seems like nobody ever wants to play a cleric, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has gone to a lot of trouble to try to make the class ever more attractive in order to keep it relevant.  And by more attractive, I mean more powerful.  
  1. Your Cleric can cast spells.  In fact, the cleric’s spell progression chart is virtually identical to that of the wizard.  And some of those Cleric spells are really, really good.
  1. But where the wizard has to wear robes and carry a staff, a cleric can wear armor and carry a shield.
  1. Also, where a wizard has to add spells to his spellbook in order to learn them, the cleric automatically has access to all clerical spells of his or her spell-level.  Granted, the cleric can only cast the spells that he has prepared, but that restriction exists for the wizard, too.
  1. And if necessary, your cleric can also fight in the front lines like a fighter.  This may or may not be ideal depending on the way you’ve built your character, but the fact is that it’s possible--and in many cases, that’s even the intent.  Certainly, if the battle becomes a mad scrum, your cleric’s odds of surviving are better than your party’s thief’s, and the thief doesn’t even get spells.
Now, I learned to play D&D back when it was called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”, and my recollection of it back then is that no one wanted to play the cleric because the weapons that clerics got to wield all kind of sucked.  My memories suggest that the cleric was an underpowered class, that the vast majority of the cleric’s spells were defensive or healing in nature, and that when that was coupled to the weaker selection of weapons, it made the class seem somewhat wimpy when compared to the fighter or the wizard.  That may not be objectively true, but that’s what I remember.  However, I also remember that over time clerics began to accumulate more and more offensive spells, making the class lack less and less in terms of offensive power, until eventually the differences went away.
That said, the sea-change came with the 4th Edition.  That’s when WotC made a serious effort to balance the classes all across the board.  Suddenly the cleric had offensive At-Will spells and weapon attacks that were at least the equal of the other classes, and while the melee weapons restrictions remained in place, they were largely negated by an adjustment of the damage output that a cleric’s weapons could do.  Which is to say that the cleric is less attractive than a fighter when he’s forced to wield a mace that deals 1d6 weapon damage while the fighter can use a longsword that deals 1d8.  But if you bump the mace’s damage output up to where it also deals 1d8, suddenly that difference is cosmetic rather than real.  Unless you really had a hard-on for edged weapons, by the time 4e rolled around, there wasn’t a good reason for not wanting to play a cleric.
And yet, still no one wanted to play a cleric.
After Proletariat Comics closed, I spent a lot of time playing D&D 4e on Play-by-Post forums.  I’m a writer, and I like telling stories, and without a small-press comic company in place to facilitate my hobby, I decided to use D&D as the primary outlet for my desire to stay creative.  When you play online, and you run a good, consistent game, it is not at all hard to find good players.  Over the years, I ran maybe a half-dozen games, one of which lasted for nearly four years.  In that time, I saw scores of players, some good, some not.  I played lots of characters, too, and one of my favorites even was a cleric, albeit an evil one, and still, I never saw anyone whose favorite class was Cleric.  In fact, if I had a hundred different player-characters run through my games over the years, I’m gonna guess that there were at most three people who played clerics voluntarily, as their first choice, during that time.  Maybe.  There were maybe three clerics in something like four years of rotating 4e games.  That’s my guess.
This was not about power or powers.  This was not about weapons or spells.  This was about role-play.  Bottom line, I think it’s a tough sell to get someone to really commit to playing the priest of an imaginary god, even when we all know that it’s not real, even when the hypothetical character in question can, mechanically speaking, kick freakin’ ass.  And 4e clerics kicked ass.
But the awesome thing about 4e was that you didn’t have to play a cleric.  With 4e, WotC designed roles for each character-type, and then they filled each role with a variety of options.  What that means is that, yes, you needed to have someone onboard your party who could cast healing spells or otherwise hit people with healing effects.  But starting with 4e, that person no longer had to be a cleric.  Starting with 4e, the guy who was gonna play the healer could still be pretty much anything that he wanted to be.  
What I’m telling you is, that was a good thing.
So here’s the deal: my experience with this is that players don’t mind playing combat medics.  And yes, there are some players who will really get into the divine nature of whatever fantasy-setting you’re using for your game, and for those players, playing a cleric can be a blast.  For the rest of us, though, I think I can speak for a lot of players when I say that I hope that WotC will consider leaving classes like the Warlord and the Artificer in the game.  Because wanting to play the team doctor is not at all the same thing as wanting to play the team’s spiritual leader and/or off-the-hinges religious zealot.  Yes, those characters can be fun, too, but in a long-running game, continually seeing things through the lens of the imaginary faith of Bane the Conqueror or Melora the Nature Goddess can be a Hell of a slog.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

2012 Harvest Hustle Race Report

Over the weekend, Sally and I did the 2012 edition of Big Boy’s Harvest Hustle 10K down at Short Beach in Stratford, CT.  The race was originally scheduled for November 4th, but thankfully it was postponed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which meant that although the weather was much colder and windier than it would have been on the original date, the upside was that I actually got a chance to run it.

When Sally and I signed up for the race, we’d meant for it to be our last real race of the year, and given that my training year had already been cut short once because of The Crisis at work, I was planning to try to really focus on this race and take it seriously.  Events, however, did not cooperate.  The last full week in October was a previously scheduled Rest Week for me, and at the time, I’d been doing a lot of interval work and felt like I badly needed the rest.  What I didn't know at the time, however, was that our second hurricane in two years would strike immediately after my Rest Week and keep me out for another two full weeks of would-be training.  So by the time the actual race week rolled around, I was coming off an unplanned three-week training hiatus.  Moreover, Sally and I had always planned to do a Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day, and neither of us wanted to cancel that, especially for a race in which, honestly, I had no expectation of running well. 

This is not to say that I wasn't looking forward to the race.  I definitely was.  What it meant was that there was no pressure.  I was committed to running easy and just having fun with it.  And with that in mind, Sally and I both trained straight through the week, making absolutely no allowance for the fact that the week was gonna end in a 10K for time.

As I've noted on this blog before, I was heavily involved in post-Sandy clean-up, working double-shifts straight through until Monday, November 12th.  I then took Tuesday the 13th off, but I didn't actually do anything that day besides drink beer and work on my favorite current writing project, The Sorcerer’s Tale.  After that, I worked my regular (desk) job for the rest of that week, and I rode my regular commute ride on my foldie those last three days, too.  Then I was off for previously scheduled vacation time for Thanksgiving Week, but I didn't actually make it out for a run until Sunday, November 18th—almost exactly three weeks after my last previous run. 

That first run was a short, rough experience, but at least I got out there.  Then Sally and I went together to the Trumbull Trail for a five-miler on Monday, and I don’t mind telling you that she cleaned my clock with ease.  The next day we went to the gym together, and then I think we might've taken Wednesday off.  Thursday was Thanksgiving, and we did a very small neighborhood 5K—the Chickadee Lane Turkey Trot, and once again, Sally cleaned my clock.  I was ahead for the first mile and a half or so—while Sally was running with one of her friends and chatting about whatever it is that women chat about when they run.  But then she dropped her friend at around Mile 2 and put the hammer down, beating me by something like thirty seconds overall and probably 90-seconds on just that last mile by itself.  As it happens, Sally won that little race outright and took home the homemade trophy—a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy dressed up as a turkey. 

We used it as our centerpiece at dinner that night.

Anyway, I went out on my bike Friday and put in an easy twenty-miler.  I wound up averaging just over 17 mph and wasn't too sore afterwards.  All things considered, that was a big victory all by itself, especially since I headed into the hills north of Main Street for the back half of the ride.  Then Sally and I went back to the gym on Saturday where we worked our lats and core.  Then Sunday came the race, and we weren't exhausted, but as I mentioned, we weren't what you’d call focused, either.

Race Morning
It wasn't a particularly bad weather week last week, but it got colder as the week progressed, and when we woke up on Sunday, it was windy, too.  Hannah was still at a sleepover, so I took only Emma over to our neighbors’ house and dropped her off.  I assume they played Wii, but I’m not sure, and now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t think I even asked.  In any event, Sally and I drove the two miles down to Short Beach and got there around 9:00 am—just in time to find some miserable-looking volunteers setting up their base camp in what had to have been twenty miles per hour of wind coming in straight off of Long Island Sound.

Sally: Why the Heck are we here so early?

Me: We have a lot to do.  We need to stretch, warm up, check in…

Sally: We could have done all that at home.  It’s freezing out here.

Me: Yeah.  I suppose we probably could have.  Sorry about that.  I’m not used to the races being so close to the house.

Needless to say, checked us in.  Then I put on a heavier sweatshirt, set up my yoga mat, and started warming up—to the general amazement of everyone, not least of all my wife. 

Sally: It’s freezing out here.  How can you stand it?

Me: I went to West Point, Sally.  And graduated.  You might not believe this, but I am actually tough when I have to be.

Truth was, I kind of loved how much the weather sucked during warm ups.  Yeah, it was 37-degrees and windy, but I struggle in heat, not the cold, and it motivated me to see everyone else shivering.  By the time I was done warming up, I felt good.  I decided to wear the heavier sweatshirt, but other than that, I didn't see any reason why we couldn't have a good day of racing.

The Race
We lined up just before at 10:00 am, and the race started right on time.  There were maybe two hundred people entered in total in both the 5K and the 10K races, and we started in a single heat.  The 5K course was an out-and-back affair—straight out from Short Beach, turn left and go around the golf course, wind through the neighborhood there in Lordship, and then turn right and run along Russian Beach for maybe a half-mile.  Then turn around and head back.  The 10K course was just the 5K course times two, and with this course being so close to our house, I guess that Sally and I have probably run it a hundred times.  Maybe more.  Perhaps not that exact course, but one very like it for sure.

Anyway, I’ll spare you the mile-by-mile, but I will say that Sally’s new GPS watch reported afterwards that she ran her race at a very even 8:12 per mile pace.  Personally, I started out easy and let myself range up to fifty or so yards behind her, but I closed the gap around the half way mark before falling off again around at around mile 4.  Coming into the last turn, I counted the women ahead of us—the ones who had already made the turn—and I realized that Sally was the 11th woman overall, and that if she ran hard, she could maybe catch the lady ahead of her and finish 10th.  Now, Sally is not the most competitive person that I've ever met, but she is competitive with me, so I decided to bury myself in an attempt to drag her into position.  At that point, Sally was maybe twenty yards ahead of me, so I had to shout when I told her, “You’re the eleventh woman, Sally!  Come on, let’s see if you can catch Number 10!”

And with that, I dropped the hammer heading into the last turn.  It took me maybe a quarter-mile to catch up to Sally, but unfortunately, she didn't have the acceleration to follow my move, and it was a good while before I realized that she hadn't been able to follow me.  I finished hard while behind me, Sally fell off her pace a bit and wound up finishing 12th overall among the ladies.  Neither of us got anywhere near catching whomever it was that was the target of my late move.

2012 Harvest Hustle 10K
Dan—50:11 (8:06/mile).  7/10 Age Group; 26/64 Overall.
Sally—50:25 (8:08/mile).  1/6 Age Group; 28/64 Overall.

To say the least, I was happy with this performance.  Heading into this race, I’d just wanted to finish and feel good doing it.  In the event, I wound up about a minute off my best (recent) time and felt better than I had any right to feel.  Sally, however, was bummed.  She’d gotten passed at the last minute by a woman whom she’d been racing back and forth since the start of the race, and given the way that we’d finished, she was not happy to have been beaten to the line.  She cheered considerably when she realized that she’d won her age group—and that the woman who beat her at the end there was nearly twenty years her junior—but it was a while before all that really sank in.  In the immediacy of the event, she was crushed.

Still, this is the second time this year that Sally has won her age group in a race, and I think she likes it.  That can only bode well going forward.

Going Forward
Now our season is well and truly over.  I don’t think we’re racing again until the Stratford Sweetheart 4-Miler in February, and right now, that feels like a long way away. 

Speaking personally, I’m about ready to get back in the water.  I’m wondering if there’s not a relatively flat Olympic triathlon somewhere within easy driving distance that I could circle on my calendar as an early target race for 2013.  If you know of one, please drop a comment below.

Happy racing!  We’ll see you next year!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Sorcerer's Tale (Chapter 2, Part 2)

Our Story So Far:
     Nicholas Rasputin is a low-level history professor at Oxford University.  He's also the son of Andre Rasputin, Britain's last great wizard/spy and one-time leader of MI-6's Special Section, and he's the great-grandson of Grigori Rasputin, perhaps the most powerful and infamous evil wizard in all history.  However, none of that explains why two American Army officers have come to Nick's classroom to try to strong-arm him into giving them Durandel, the legendary Sword of Kings.

I’d finally reached the train station and was on the escalator to the platform when a memory hit me so hard that it nearly knocked me over.  I was on the football pitch and had gotten into it with another boy.  I was twelve, the son of an aggressive man, and not naturally inclined to give ground when challenged.  The other boy and I had tussled several times already, though nothing serious, until I’d finally put my shoulder into his chest and knocked him down.  And then it had been on, all fists and elbows and bony knees.  When they’d finally pulled us apart, the other boy had a yellow-card, and I somehow had a free kick.  It wasn’t justice; it was football.
So there I sat, ball on the ground, just outside the Penalty Box, a solid wall of the opposing team’s green jerseys lined up in front of the goal.  Sure, I could have tried to pass, but what self-respecting twelve-year-old boy is going to do that?  Besides, I’d always had a bit of a leg.  So I stepped back, ran at the ball, planted my foot, and drilled it.  It was the kick I wanted, too—a high, lobbing shot that floated over the opposing defenders, hit the top of its arc and dropped at speed towards the goal, too high for the keeper.  It looked like it was going to go... until it didn’t.  The referee’s whistle blew.  My ball had sailed three inches high of the upper post.  Goal kick.
Play resumed.  I don’t remember who won, and it didn’t matter.  What mattered was that after the game, my father found me and pulled me aside.  I thought that maybe he was going to warn me against fighting, but I should have known better.  Old Dad didn’t mind a fight when you won.
So we stood there, and he looked me in the eyes.  He said, “Son, that was a good kick today, even though you missed.  And today, it’s okay that you missed.  You’re only twelve, after all.  But you need to keep practicing!  Someday, you’re going to be a Platoon Leader in the Regiments, and when that day comes, you can’t afford to miss.  You can’t miss!  Lives will depend on you.  
“So keep practicing, son.  Keep practicing.”
The warm reverie of memory carried me unthinking across the Outbound Platform, onto a car, and then out the other side.  A few minutes later, I was out on the street, headed towards a familiar apartment building.  I’d been standing in front of it, fumbling with my keys for nearly a minute before I realized that it was the wrong building.  
I’d come to Amy’s place out of sheer force of habit.  
And maybe, I admitted to myself, for a few other reasons, too.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Every Damn Time...

It's been tough to be a Tennessee Titans fan this season, but in spite of that, I decided to catch up with the team yesterday because, first off, the Giants weren't on until the night game last night, and second, because it seems like Tennessee has been playing a little better since Jake Locker came back from his injury and team owner Bud Adams publicly called the team out.  I mean, they beat Miami pretty convincingly before their bye week, and I'd have sworn that Miami was gonna hand them their ass.  So I checked back in.  I've been burned before, but despite that, I let myself believe.  The Titans were playing the theretofore 1-9 Jacksonville Jaguars yesterday, and I figured, well, no matter  how ugly the game gets, at least the Titans are probably gonna win.  I mean, Jacksonville has been God-awful all season.


The Titans got six or seven sacks, got an interception on like the second play of the game, and basically had every opportunity you could ask for, but they could not close the deal under any circumstances.  They didn't score a touchdown until they were down two scores late in the Fourth, and even then, when they scored to bring the game to within two and then forced a three-and-out from the Jags with something like three-minutes left to play, that's when Jake Locker threw a terrible interception on his own side of the field, pretty much ending the game on the spot.

At this point, I don't know if the problem is that the defense isn't very good--although I don't think that was the problem yesterday--or if it's that Jake Locker isn't very good, or if there is some reason that I don't understand why the Titans' wide receivers just can't reliably catch the ball in bounds.  Like lack of concentration or whatever.  Regardless, the team was just awful in the Red Zone yesterday, and that was against a team that is probably the worst overall team in the League.  Argh.

As I write this, it's still Sunday afternoon, so God alone knows what the Giants are gonna do.  At this point, I'm a little scared.  Despite everything, the Giants still look good to with the NFC East, but if they aren't one-and-done in the Playoffs, it can only be because Tom Coughlin made a deal with the Devil.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Comics: Bronx Angel--Politics By Another Method (Page 6)

Bronx Angel: Politics By Another Method, page 6.
To see this page at full size, click here.
I probably shouldn't say this, but this exchange between Angel and Spice is one of my favorite parts of this story.  Sally and I talked through this a lot while I was working to get it to read right, and now pretty much  every time I call her, and I haven't talked to her in awhile, I start off the call with, "Yo Sally.  I been callin' you, my angel.  Why ain't you called me back?"

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saturday Update: November 24, 2012

The good news is..
I've been on vacation for a week, and I'm now feeling better than I have in a long, long time.  Rested.  Ready.  Relaxed.  Good all-around.  Moreover, Thanksgiving was awesome, and except for the part where we spent a lot of time in the kitchen, it was also pretty darned uneventful.  On top of that, I've run three times in the past week and ridden my bike once, and now Sally and I have a race tomorrow, and I'm very much looking forward to it.  And if that's not enough, it's also now the Christmas season, and yet I'm not worried even a little. Except for Sally, pretty much all of my shopping is done.

We had Thanksgiving with our neighbors.

With that said, this is why it's hard to finish anything.
Last night Sally decreed that everyone in our family has to make Christmas gifts for everyone else in our family.  Of course, we can buy gifts, too--and God knows, I've bought gifts--but at least one gift must be handmade.  For each person in our family.  I quickly got permission to do one thing for the two girls combined, but yeah, this is why I need an executive writing assistant.  Because I spent about an hour this morning sketching out a fantasy short story for my girls that'll serve as my present to them, and I'm pretty happy with it, but it's gonna be a serious challenge to find the time to actually write the darned thing.

If you're wondering, the story is gonna be a Tolkienesque fantasy-mystery using their D&D characters as the protagonists.  It's kind of a paint-by-the-numbers locked-room mystery plot, but I'll set in the mythical town of Wanderhaven, and we'll use plenty of young-adult-type magic and that kind of thing to make it sing.  The issue, however, is that I've been working on a short story called "The Sorcerer's Tale", and that's now going to have to take a backseat until after Christmas.  The Hell of it is that I just started re-writing a new chapter of "Sorcerer's Tale", and I'd at least like to finish that before moving on, but this next bit \needs a lot of re-writing.

Yeah, yeah.  I'm sure I'll pull it all together, too.  I'm just not sure about when.

We watched some movies...
Rock of Ages was terrific.
We finally saw The Hunger Games on Thanksgiving night and then Rock of Ages last night.

I'll admit that I was a little disappointed with The Hunger Games.  I mean, the movie was okay, but I was expecting the second coming of Harry Potter based on the buzz and the reviews, and it definitely wasn't that.  For one thing, they go to all this trouble to talk up the violence of the Games, but then the scenes in the battle-dome (or whatever it was) that involved Katniss all revolved around survivalist training and gathering food.  Our heroine barely used her bow!

And then, too, at the start of the Games they go to some trouble to establish that the quiver has something like a dozen or a score of arrows, and over the course of the movie, we slowly see those arrows as a dwindling resource.  By the time the final battle came up, we can see that there were only three arrows left, but the movie never makes use of the fact that, Holy Cow, our heroes are about to run out of ammo!  And if they do run out of arrows, we know that they're screwed because the plot went to some very serious lengths to establish the main boy from District 1 is a bad-ass sword fighter.  They definitely do not want to meet him on his terms.

What I'm saying here is that if the organizers of the Hunger Games wanted to ensure that the kids from District 1 triumphed, all they had to do was to extend the games by a few more days.  Then Katniss would have run out of arrows by hunting, and the contest would have come down to a hand-to-hand struggle.  And that would have been that, The End.  However, for some reason the organizers rush to the finale while our heroes still have some bullets left, and in the end, that advantage is decisive.  Ergo stupidity.

Needless to say, I liked Rock of Ages better, and I'm now super-bummed in retrospect that the movie didn't perform at the box office.  I mean, Julianne Hough, the female lead, isn't very strong (but she is hot), and besides that, the movie itself is great.  Tom Cruise in particular was phenomenal, especially his singing, and unless I very much missed it, it looked like he played several licks himself on the guitar as well.

I'm starting to think that Cruise is a hyper-talented guy who's also more than a little misunderstood.  Maybe some of that--most of it--is his fault, but it doesn't take away from what the guy has been able to accomplish professionally, which is a long string of iconic leading-role performances.  In truth, the one in Rock of Ages ought to have been the equal of any of the others, but unfortunately, I think the truth is that Rock and Roll really is dead, and so no ones cares.  Or in this case even noticed.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Friday Mad Science? No, this is Black Friday Madness!

You have reached Danno's Lair, Friday Mad Science Division. We can't come to the phone right now because we're out shopping for Christmas and boosting our nation's economy.

Your call is important to us. Please leave your name and number and a short message after the beep, and we'll be sure to get back to you in the order in which you called.

Thank you, and have a nice day.


Train's Drops of Jupiter

This is what passes for Hair Metal on Black Friday.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Danno’s Thanksgiving: Top 10 Reasons to be Thankful (Chrome-Plated Geek Edition)

I have lots and lots of things for which to be thankful.  I have a great family, a house that I love, a job with decent pay and decent hours that doesn’t drive me crazy, and after something like thirty-five moves, I finally feel like I’m getting a chance to really settle down and settle in to a community where I belong.  My kids are great, and they’re smart, and they’re healthy.  My wife is beautiful and intelligent.  She’s blonde and thin and athletic, and she’s got a D-cup, and she can name the President of France off the top of her head.  Of course, every marriage is work, and ours is certainly no exception, but Sally and I are both fully committed.  Also, we’ve been hit by two hurricanes in two years, and we’ve had zero property damage and/or flooding in our house.  This last time we didn’t even lose power.

With all of that said, and lots more unsaid, the point of this post isn’t to talk about what makes me personally feel thankful.  We’ve got a great life, and I think that we’re smart enough to know it.  No, what I want to talk about today is Lair-related.  Specifically, it’s been a great year to be a Geek.  Unprecedented, really.  And with that in mind, I want to list my Top-Ten Reasons for Giving Thanks, Chrome-Plated Geek Edition.  So here goes:

Top-Ten Reasons for Giving Thanks 

(Chrome-Plated Geek Edition)

10.  Batman: Death of the Family.  Granted, most DC Comics Events are groan-worthy, and frankly this one probably will be as well.  Also, the very name is an allusion to another epic Batman storyline, written (of course) by Jim Starlin, the most swaggerjacked man in the history of comics.  Even so, the base storyline inBatman, written by Scott Snyder and illustrated by Greg Capullo, has been absolutely terrifying.  I’ve read a lot of Joker stories, but this one takes the character to a whole new level.  This is an awesomely terrific book.  I’m thankful for the opportunity to be there as it develops.

9.  Google’s decided to compete on price.  Apple changed the game by introducing the iPod, then the iPhone, and then the iPad.  But Apple has been careful to keep their stuff priced premium, and until very recently, we’ve had little choice but to pay.  However, Google has followed Amazon into the tablet market, building gadgets that not only work well but that are also priced affordably.  What’s more, they’ve built a pair of laptops (through subsidiaries) that are both very good and very cheap.  With Microsoft seemingly losing its way in terms of the usability of its basic Windows products, Google has an opportunity.  I’m thankful that they don’t seem to want to charge an arm and a leg in exploiting it.
8.  The ComiCONN was a huge success.  Granted, it was so huge that the girls and I never even got in, but still...  It was good for our local retailer, it was good for my favorite pet industry, and it was a good barometer of where the local culture is going.  That’s plenty enough for which to be thankful.
7.  There’s a new Hobbit movie coming out next.  How awesome is that?  We should all be thankful that Peter Jackson decided to step back into Middle Earth.  ‘Course it goes without saying that he should have broken the Hobbit into only two movies instead of three, but hey.  At least there’ll be something worth watching in theaters next month.  I, for one, am grateful.
6.  Harvest and the Holidays mean that it’s finally time for the year’s best seasonal craft beers.  I am incredibly thankful for having had the opportunity to pick up the newest edition of Sierra Nevada’s hand-crafted Estate seasonal yesterday at the liquor store.
5.  Arrow, the TV show.  I know, right?  It’s crazy that my favorite show is on the CW, but there it is.  I really, really like that show, and frankly, I’m grateful that someone has finally put a decent comic book adaptation onto weekly TV.
4.  The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show is terrific.  Emma and I really like it, and any time I can sit down and watch TV with the Emboo, life is at least okay.  I’m grateful for that.  I really am.
3.  The Amazing Spider-Man.  From Dan Slott’s writing to Humberto Ramos’s art to the fact that even the movie version of ASM was pretty darned good, fact is, if you’re a fan of Spidey, this has been a damn good year.  A lot to be thankful for there.
2.  The Avengers movie.  The sheer scope of Joss Whedon’s triumph ensures that there will be geeky stuff on our TVs and movie screens for the next decade, at least.  And then Disney decided to double-down on geek by buying Star Wars.  I’m telling you, we’re living in blessed times.  Be smart enough to see it for what it is.  And be thankful.
Yeah, I know.  But the Busiek run is still my favorite.
1.  The D&D Playtest with my kids.  I’ve been wanting to play D&D with my girls since before Hannah was born.  Now I’ve finally got the chance.  And yeah, if you’re wondering, the answer is totally yes.  The wait was definitely worth it.
Bonus Thanksgiving: Overtime and Vacation.  I worked a ton recently, right before the Holidays.  Now I’m on vacation, and it’s just been great.  
‘Nuff said.

The Chickadee Turkey Trot

We ran a little neighborhood race this morning. Your overall winner? Sally Head!

D&D Next Playtest (Part 2): Elaina Emboo Visits the Blackraven Monastery

This is the second half of my discussion of our family's D&D Next Playtest.  The first part went up yesterday, so if you haven't read that bit, you might want to start there.

Teaching D&D to a Seven-Year Old
My wife Sally and Hannah, my older daughter, went on a Girl Scout outing the afternoon after Hannah, Emma, and I made our characters, leaving me and Emma the next afternoon.  This was Sunday, and there wasn’t much of a football slate scheduled, so I decided that the time had come to start really teaching Emma to play D&D.

We sat down at lunch, and I went through the idea of Skill mechanics with her, and this immediately led to an impromptu Skills Challenge.  I established Emma’s character in a dark and spooky forest, and I said that she’d been traveling with a trading caravan that had been attacked by goblins.  She wandered until she came upon a fortress on the edge of a deeper section of the woods—the Blackraven Monastery.  At this point, Emma didn’t know that the place was a monastery, so we played through her encounter with the monastery’s gate guard, and when she failed a Bluff check to convince the guy that she was a princess and that he ought to give her a place to sleep and a hot meal—all her idea, by the way—I had him take her to the monastery’s father abbot.  She then succeeded in her next Bluff check, and soon she had the father abbot believing that she was a princess and that his gate guard was a fool for not recognizing it immediately.  I then had the father abbot assign his chief priest, Melora Moonstone, to show Emma’s character to her quarters, and… 

Suddenly I could see that Emma was getting bored.  We talked about it, and she said, yeah, the storytelling part of D&D was okay, but she’d rather play one of the board games.  Fortunately, by that time we’d finished lunch.  So after I cleaned up the kitchen, we busted out the box for The Legend of Drizzt, and soon Emma started digging through the figurines looking for the one that looked the most like Elaina Emboo. 

As it happens, Emma wanted to play the board game, but she wanted to play it using her character, Elaina Emboo.

Elaina and Melora vs. The Goblin Horde
We sat down to our first combat encounter, and what I quickly realized is that seven-year-olds are visual creatures.  The problem with our lunch encounter was that it didn’t involve any toys.  So we set up an impromptu forest on our dining room table, using Mommy’s flowers, a pair of small decorative gourds, and the salt and pepper shakers as our trees.  I established that trees provide partial cover and concealment, and that if you were behind a tree, you could make a Stealth check, and then I grabbed a ruler and said that one inch on the ruler equaled five feet of gaming space on our “board”.  I then grabbed some of the goblins and whatnot out of the Legend of Drizzt box, and we were off.

The nice thing about D&D Next is that the combat encounters are quick and painless.  I’ll be the first to admit that D&D’s Fourth Edition was a better, more complete fantasy combat simulator, but the downside of that was you just couldn’t have a throw-away encounter.  Every encounter in 4e is like a set-piece battle that lasts at least an hour of real time, so if you’re gonna take the time to do one, you may as well do one that has some bite to it.  For a seven-year-old, however, time and patience are finite qualities, and movement—in the game, in the story, etc—is an utter necessity.  It’s tempting as well to say that the fact that D&D Next has fewer character choices in combat also helps younger players, but the fact is that that’s not always true.  In Emma’s case, especially, that wasn’t true.  Her Illusionist had three or maybe even four At-Will spells, a Signature spell, and what amounted to two Daily spells, and I think she managed to use every one of them at some point in our play that afternoon.

Regardless, what happened was that I decided to play Sally’s character Melora for that first combat, and as she and Elaina set out from the Blackraven Monastery that afternoon, they quickly encountered more of the goblins that had ambushed Elaina’s caravan on the road at the game’s outset.  Elaina and Melora made quick work of that first goblin patrol—three goblins vs. two Player-Characters, and here let me admit that the combat scaled beautifully with just two PCs against 30 XP worth of monsters—and then they tracked the goblins’ trail back to their lair. 

At the lair’s entrance, I established a pair of goblins guarding the mouth of the cave, and then I set a Dire Wolf back behind the cave entrance, hidden from the heroes as they approached.  Emma suggested using Stealth on the way up to goblin’s lair, and so I let her discover the goblins before they discovered her.  Then she suggested using her illusionary magic to disguise herself and Melora as goblins from another tribe, and since her character is an Illusionist (and in possession of a Disguise kit), I decided to let her try this with a simple Bluff check.  Of course, the Bluff failed, and soon we were back into combat.

This combat showed us pretty much everything.  Emma opened it with Burning Hands, which killed one goblin and wounded the other as well as the Dire Wolf.  Then the Wolf attacked and savaged Emma’s character, reducing her to exactly zero hit points and knocking her temporarily unconscious.  Melora then healed Elaina with her one Daily spell, Cure Light Wounds, and used Command—no action needed in D&D Next—to make the Dire Wolf “Sit!” for a round.  That gave Elaina time to get to her feet and Melora time to kill the one remaining goblin with her mace.  After that, I think Elaina killed the Dire Wolf with a Ray of Frost, but I’m not really sure.  Regardless, our heroes triumphed, but not without having to use some substantial resources to overcome their foes.

By this time we’d been playing for about an hour—half an hour over lunch using the “storytelling” part of the game and half an hour using miniatures on our dining room table.  I was ready to wrap things up, but I wanted to do it with a bang.  So I had Elaina and Melora wander back into the goblin cave, and there they encountered the Goblin Chief and his three heartiest lieutenants.

Elaina opened combat by casting a Minor Illusion, creating a phantasmal troll that fooled two of the four goblins into wasting their initial attacks.  Then Melora killed one with a Lance of Faith, and in short order, we were triumphant.  I had Elaina pick up the goblin leader’s crown, making it the magical Black Crown of Command (homebrewed artifact, grants +2 to Bluff and Persuade checks), and voila!  We were done with our first play session.

Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Amazing Spider-Man #698

Holy cow!  

Comic of the year.  Easy.  Five stars, no question.  


D&D Next Playtest (Part 1): My Girls Make Their Very Own Player-Characters

I finally got a chance to sit down and start teaching my girls Dungeons and Dragons over the weekend, and before we get too far into it, let me just spoiler the ending a little here and admit that we had a blast playing the game.  Now, I’ve gotta admit up front that my girls have a little advantage over someone coming into the game cold because we’ve played a couple of the 4th Edition-lite board games, Wrath
of Ashardalon and The Legend of Drizzt, and both of those games involve basic concepts that are fundamental to the full version of D&D.  Still, those games are definitely board games, albeit board games that involve to-hit rolls and Armor Class, and so I knew going into this that there were going to be some growing pains.

The Legend of Drizzt is a terrific board game for D&D newcomers.
I have two daughters—Hannah, 9, and Emma, 7.  Emma is by far the more interested in all things geek.  She likes comic books, and she likes dragons, and last year when I home-brewed my famous Icefire Penguin  for my long-running Play-by-Post (PbP) game The Sellswords of Luskan, Emma was sitting right there next to me, telling me what she thought an Icefire Penguin ought to be able to do. Still, seven is a young age to be learning D&D, and I was a little concerned with Emma’s ability to grasp the mechanics and the choices that lie at the heart of the game.  Hannah, on the other hand, worried me less because she has shown a very strong grasp of the mechanics of the D&D board games.  Plus, I was about her age when I taught myself to play D&D out of the now-famous Red Box, and Hannah is so much like me in so many ways, that a lot of times it feels more like she’s my female clone than my daughter.  Moreover, both girls understand the idea of rolling to see if you hit with an attack, and based on that, it was easy to teach them the idea of rolling for damage based on that attack.  That, at least, was a good start.

Creating Characters
I needed an Icefire Penguin because I was
planning to run the 4e version of Against
the Gianst
, using a primordial Fire Cult as
the adventure hook.
The first thing I did was to sit down with the girls and help them create characters, a process I knew both would love.  I let Emma go first, and I’ll admit that I spent a lot more time with her, both because I thought that she was really, really into it and because at that point I didn’t realize how long it was going to take.  As it happens, we wound up spending about an hour and a half, and at the end of it, Emma had an Elven Wizard (Illusionist) who pretends to be a princess but who is in reality just a kind of sneaky magical con-artist.  This was not at all the character that I’d thought Emma would want to create, but like I said, she was really into it, and as she would show when we played, she knew exactly what it was that she was trying to achieve.  Emma wound up naming her character Elaina Emboo.

I’d thought before that Hannah would want to be an Elf Princess and a Cleric, but she surprised me, too, by putting together a Halfling Rogue—a Thief where I’d have sworn she’d want to play an Acrobat—that she named Sneakatara “Sneax” Boatman.  The upside of this character was that it didn’t take long to put her together, which was good because by this time I was running short on time in general, but I made a mistake because where I spent a lot of time with Emma picking out spells and discussing the different mechanics involved with At-Will and Daily spells—and these were mechanics that she’d seen before via the D&D board games—with Hannah I spent time discussing Skills and the mechanics of Stealth, but I glossed over Maneuvers and Expertise Dice.  At the time, I figured that we’d cover it once we actually started trying to walk through our first encounter.  As it happened, however, that proved to be difficult to do, and the magnitude of the mistake was compounded by the fact that Maneuvers and Expertise Dice are new to D&D Next.  The kids had seen spells, and they got the concept of skills checks quickly enough, but I still haven’t succeeded in getting across Maneuvers and Expertise, and this after our first full combat run.

We did all of this one night while my wife was out selling Arbonne, and I should note in passing that I exchanged a few texts with her while we were doing it, enough to establish that she’d rather play a Cleric than a Fighter or a Monk, and that she’d rather be a Cleric of the Sun God than a Cleric of the Battle or Trickster gods.  So I adapted one of the pre-gen characters for her out of the Playtest packet and named her character Melora Moonstone.  I then built myself a Monk, whom I named Jaxon Jackson, and I printed off the Dwarf Fighter from the pre-gen packet whom I named Thorin Battlehammer.  I then stuck both characters in my folder for later.

All of that worked fine, save that Sally is super-busy, and D&D hasn’t exactly been at the top of her priority list.  So at this point, both of my kids now know the game well enough to play it and have fun, but my wife, if she ever actually manages to sit down with us, is gonna be utterly mystified.  What’s worse is that she’s playing the Cleric, and Cleric is most assuredly the most complicated of the classes in the Playtest packet.  But she seems committed to the idea of being a Cleric, so… 

Well, bottom line, I’m not sure how that’s all going to play out.  Still, there’s probably a 50/50 chance that it’ll never even come up, so at this point, I’m not overly concerned.

Wednesday's Not-Quite Hair Metal: Justin Bieber at the AMA's

Today's not my Friday.  I've actually been on vacation all week!  And Justin Bieber sure as Hell isn't singing Hair Metal.  But in case today is your Friday, well, here you go.

And yeah, I know what you're thinking.  Justin Bieber?  But Sally and I both really enjoyed Beiber's performance at the American Music Awards (AMAs), me so much that I think I can now--officially--call myself a Bieber fan.  Yes, I am man enough to admit that.

Anyway, this performance quite reminded me of Justin Timberlake or even Michael Jackson.  But if you missed it, don't take my word for it.  Watch it for yourself.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Sorcerer's Tale (Chapter 2, Part 1)

Our Story So Far:
     Nicholas Rasputin is a low-level history professor at Oxford University.  He's also the son of Andre Rasputin, Britain's last great wizard/spy and one-time leader of MI-6's Special Section, and he's the great-grandson of Grigori Rasputin, perhaps the most powerful and infamous evil wizard in all history.  However, none of that explains why two American Army officers have come to Nick's classroom to try to strong-arm him into giving them Durandel, the legendary Sword of Kings.

Chapter 2: Amy

It’s a five minute walk to the nearest train station from the Golden Dragon.  In those five minutes, my emotions cycled through the complete gamut, from resignation to resentment, from a general sense of ill-use through simple acceptance and into my all-purpose standby—anger.  My father was gone, and he’d left me with a lot more than just my grief over the loss.  He’d also, apparently, left me with some rather unfinished business.
I sighed.  
With him gone a year now, I’d thought all those fights were over.  That whole, “What are you going to do with your life?” thing seemed a long time ago.  The arguments about how I’ve been ignoring who I am, about how I have an inherent responsibility...  
It’s been bad enough that we never got over it, that we were arguing about it until literally the day he died.  That the echoes of those arguments still ring in my ears because, bottom line, you think you’re going to eventually be able to come to an understanding with someone, that someday they’re finally going to learn to live with and accept the person that you really are, the person that you want to be.  But in real life, that doesn’t happen.  
In real life, they get cancer, and they die.  
And all that time when you ought to be making up after all and everything?  When you ought to be saying what you always thought you’d have time to say?  That’s when your dad has a breathing tube stuck down his throat and tubes coming out of his nose and arms.  And his neck and his chest.  And he’s barely conscious.
My dad was awake for most of that last day.  He couldn’t talk, of course, but he’d somehow managed to get hold of a pen and a piece of paper, and he’d started writing notes.  Through it all, he’d never let them take his athame--though the Lord only knows what he thought he was going to do with it--and when I came in that morning, he’d written me something and wrapped it around the blade’s sheathe.  When he came in, he pressed it on me--note and knife, both--with great vigorousness.
The note read: “I needed your help.  I’m sorry.”
I looked at him and smiled.  “It’s okay, Dad.  But it means a lot to me that you’d take the time to say that.”
But that upset Dad, and he grabbed the note back, as best he could.  His hand shook, but he took the pen and he underlined “your help.”  
“I needed your help.”
I looked at note and then I looked back at my dad.  This was not an apology.  This was a last reminder.  A parting shot about my so-called sacred calling.  This was what he wanted me to remember once he was gone.
A year on, and his athame’s weight still sat heavy in my inner coat pocket.  
“It’s always the same argument, right Dad?  You just can’t let it go, even now.”
I shook my head.  
I’ve always felt like, if Dad chose to spend his life in service, then fine.  But he could at least have done me the courtesy of calling it what it was—a choice.  I mean, yeah, he probably did think that we owed some kind of debt, because of who we are.  And for a time, maybe that was even true given our family’s history.  But Dad’s service went far beyond the depth of obligation.  
The truth is that he loved the life he chose.  He loved his work.  The military, the SIS, the idea of Service; those things were his life’s blood.  The manly life, lived in the company of other men, was as necessary to Dad as the air he breathed.  His first thought in the morning was that he would, through his actions, make Great Britain a better, safer nation.  And his last thought before he went to bed at night was the simple satisfaction of a job well done.  The Realm was saved; War Wizard Andre Rasputin had seen to it.
But the choices of the father do not unalterably devolve to the son.  Yes, I served.  I did my part.  But it had never excited me the way it had excited Dad.  My father was very smart in his own way, make no mistake.  He was a canny tactician, a subtle and intelligent wizard, capable of well-conceived misdirection coupled with stunning violence when such was called for.  Not for nothing had he triumphed at Goose Green.  To his enemies, he was little more than quick death, an unseen end given in the name of Queen and Country.  
And yet, though he was all of that and more, he wasn’t what you’d call brilliant.  He wasn’t smart.  He lacked that indefinable edge of brainpower, the innate intellectual curiosity that sets apart truly learned men.  It didn’t make him less of a man—quite the opposite really—but it limited him.  What he accomplished, he accomplished through guts and strength and sheer determination.  He coupled his strength of will to the firepower of the British Army, and the results were spectacular.  That was enough to make him the Chief of the Special Section.  But it could never have made him the Head of the MI-6.  Nor could he, for example, have ever hoped to have served in Parliament or, as I do, as a professor at a top university.  My father was very good at doing what he did, as far as it went, and that as enough for him.  But it was not enough for me, though he’d never understood that--even on that last bloody day.
It’s bittersweet, remembering those times.  My father, still tall and proud, in full possession of his powers and prowess, years away from the wasting time, the tubes, the oxygen tent, and all the rest of it.  
It’s been like that since his funeral, my emotions swinging back and forth like a pendulum.  Up and back.  Good times and bad.  
I missed feeling reliably like myself.  At times, I could barely remember what being me felt like.

To read this story from the beginning, click on  keyword down below.