Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Weekend Roundup: Stupid Mistakes Triathletes Make… and How to Avoid Them

I don’t want to say that it was a bad weekend, but I made at least two dumb-assed triathlon mistakes and wound up with my first—albeit minor—injury of the season.  Argh.  As I noted later that afternoon, I got up early for Spin Class on Saturday, but despite having plenty of time, I still managed to walk out of the house without my Gatorade bottle, resulting in a near blood-sugar meltdown in the middle of class.  Then when I headed out for a five-mile run yesterday morning, I pulled a muscle in my left calf.  Dumb!

Let’s take Saturday’s mistake first.  It was much less complicated.

A human body always burns a mix of blood sugar (glucose) and fat for fuel.  This is true for everyone, all the time.  Fat is by far the more plentiful fuel supply, even for folks who’re very skinny, and when we’re at rest or working at a relatively low heart rate, fat is what we’re burning most.  However, our brains run exclusively on glucose, and more to the point, glucose is the easier, more “high octane” fuel.  So as we increase our effort level, our metabolism naturally shifts on a sliding scale—from burning primarily fat with a hint of glucose to burning primarily glucose with a hint of fat.  This is why you may sometimes hear that walking is a better exercise for losing weight than is running.  Not because you burn more calories walking—you definitely do not—but because your body will burn fat as a fuel source when you walk, and because you can keep walking for a lot longer than you can run.

As a triathlete—or any other kind of endurance athlete, for that matter—the trick is to train your body to burn fat more efficiently while simultaneously taking on nutrition mid-effort to prevent your blood glucose level from bottoming out.  There’s a lot to that, of course, and doing it well is not at all easy, but bottom line, you want to be able to go at a pace that you can sustain over the length of a given race, and you want to be burn blood glucose at about the same rate that you can replace it.  For efforts that are less than forty-five minutes and accomplished at something like a comfortable aerobic pace, this is generally not a big deal.  However, once you start going longer and/or harder than that, you need to start thinking about fuel.  This is one of the big reasons why folks use Gatorade or other sports drinks during athletic activity.  Sports drinks have simple sugars, sugars that your body can absorb easily during exercise, allowing you to partially replace the glucose you burn while racing or otherwise working out.

The rest is simple math.  One hour of Spin Class with repeated intervals of very hard effort plus pure water instead of sugary sports drink equals low blood sugar.  I mean, I didn’t bonk—I didn’t run completely out of blood glucose and hit “the wall”—but I did suffer, and my performance in class declined unnecessarily.  I also had to cancel the second half of my planned workout.

What happened Sunday is a little harder to pin down.

Having not run on Saturday because of low blood sugar, I got up early Sunday morning.  I planned a simple five-mile run, and I planned to take it easy.  With the early wake-up, I had time to eat a little and do plenty of stretching and yoga, and so although I’ve been tired lately, I had absolutely no reason to think that anything was going to go wrong.  With that said, fatigue has been an issue for me lately, and the pulled calf muscle, sustained somewhere around the second mile of what would turn out to be a roughly three-and-a-half-mile run in total, is almost certainly my body’s way of telling me to back off or face far more serious consequences.

I noodled over this for awhile, and basically, here’s what I think: although I’ve been working no harder this year than last year in terms of total aerobic effort, the fact that I’ve not been swimming at all means that I’ve put far more work on my legs than ever before.  I’ve not been riding too much, and I don’t think I’ve been running too much, but I’ve been doing both together quite a bit, and given the intensity of the Spin Classes on top of everything else, well, something’s got to give.  As it happens, that something was my left calf.
My training log from February 2011.  Note all the swim yardage.
This season has had roughly the same total aerobic work but NO swimming.
The difference, I think, explains my recent fatigue and this injury.
So.  At this point, the short term fix is rest.  That’s easy.  Long term, however, is a little trickier.  Yes, I probably need to add in some swimming for balance, but beyond that, I also think I need to look closely at my workout intensity.  Which is to say that you can add mileage, or you can up the ante in your workouts, but if you do both at the same time, bad things generally happen.  Well, I’ve done both, and I should’ve known what was coming.  Mileage is fine, but I obviously need to add more steady-state, base pace aerobic mileage before I worry about getting faster.  And I know that, but I got excited by the early season rush. 

What can I say?  These things happen.  However, as an experienced triathlete and soon-to-be triathlon coach, I need to stop them from happening quite so often to me.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What I Like in a Comic Book Artist

Somebody asked me a few days ago what I like in a comic book artist.  The answer is that there's no one thing, really.  I like a lot of different styles, dependent in part on what I'm reading and a little on how I'm feeling at the time.  The fact is that there's not one right way to draw comics.  We tend to think of the lantern-jawed, barrel-chested Marvel/DC collective house style as the "right" way to draw comics, but really, that cuts out an awful lot of good stuff out there.

Personally, I like to see artists put themselves into their work.  I'll trade realism for action and emotion any day.  With that said, here are some of my personal favorites.  This first one is from the best piece of comic work that I've ever been involved with, Webisode 22 of Awesome Storm Justice 41.  Steve Downer drew it, and I think we can all agree that it rocks.
Page 3, ASJ-41 Webisode 3.
Not what I'd call realistic, exactly, but it definitely pops, right?  I dug it the most.

Another favorite of mine is Cary Nord, especially his run on the early part of Dark Horse Comics' relaunch of Conan.
Conan by Cary Nord.  It screams, right?

Finally, I think I ought to mention Alex Maleev, who drew perhaps my favorite comic story run of all time, the Brian Bendis/Alex Maleev run on Daredevil.
I don't usually go in for "brooding", but this run
was just soooo good.

I suppose my taste in art is of a piece with my taste in music.  I like stuff that has energy, that makes me feel alive.  All of these guys do.  There are many others, but you ask who some of my favorites are, and now you know.

Anybody want to name any more?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Comics, Day 5. Bronx Angel: Born Leader, Page 4

Bronx Angel: Born Leader, Page 4.  Click here to see page at full size.
I doubt an American would've drawn these particular bad guys looking quite so heroic.  But I like this page.

Storywise, Angel and the boys are in trouble here.  What's gonna happen next?

As always, if you want to read the whole story from the beginning, click the Sunday Comics tag.  That's what it's there for.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tri Update: Coaching and a forceful reminder that Nutrition is the Fourth Discipline

Alright, first thing's first.  I just signed the paperwork, and now I am officially the coach of the new Woodruff Family YMCA Triathlon Club.

Like the sign says, our first meeting is a week from Monday, but that'll just be an organizational-type "getting to know you" meeting.  After that, I'm planning to swim on Wednesday nights and get together for some kind of run/ride/brick thing on Saturday mornings.  The plan is gonna kind of depend on the fitness level of the folks who show up, but I'm still excited and can't wait to see how it goes.

With that out of the way, I'll confess that I was rather forcibly reminded that nutrition is the fourth discipline of triathlon this morning.  You may remember from yesterday's post that I'd planned to ride this morning, but as it happened, I didn't have a chance to go get my bike until just this afternoon, meaning that I had little choice but to just head to Spin Class this morning.  And to be honest, Spin Class was awesome.  A lot of times, the Spin instructors like to do a lot of jumps and short interval sprints, but today was much more of a mid-distance-friendly affair, focused on nothing more complicated than heavy spinning.  

That was good.  

What was unfortunate was that I forgot to grab my Gatorade before heading out this morning.  And while I managed to buy a bottle of water from the girl at the front desk, mere water didn't help hold my blood sugar level up in the middle of a tough, hour-long workout, and given that I hadn't eaten much more than a banana this morning, that meant that my blood sugar actually bottomed out about half way through class today.

Ouch.  I survived, but running after class was definitely out, and in any event, by the time I got home, my head was spinning.

So.  Rookie mistake, but a painful one.  Let's not do that again, okay?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Mad Science: On Finding the Point

Sally and I were talking about the blog on Wednesday night, and after a while she broke down and asked the question that I could see had been on her mind for awhile.  “What’s the point of all this?”

I smiled and shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Does it have to have a point?”

Sally let it go.  By now she knows better than to try to get between me and whatever hobby-of-the-moment I happen to be obsessed with, but her question still stuck with me.  What is the point here?

I’ve been happy with the growth in readership that this blog has seen in the last few weeks.  Since I’ve started posting daily, we’ve grown to have somewhere between a dozen and a score of readers every day, with probably a large handful or so of regulars.  Comments show that most of the regulars are guys from my gaming groups, and beyond that, I’ve gotten a few emails about stuff I’ve written from friends from high school and the independent comic creator scene.  I mean, I could wish for more regular readers (and more comments!), but then again, folks really seem to like the beer reviews, so if I keep doing those every week, odds are that more regulars will show eventually. 

On the other hand, anyone with sense knows that blogging isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme.  Yes, I monetized the blog with ads, but that was as much for the principle of the thing as it was for any other reason.  As of this writing, the blog has made all of thirteen cents, and if I’m being honest, that’s a full dime more than I’d expected to make in the first month of daily posting.  Granted, I may never get over whatever Google’s minimum payout amount is, but as I noted, it’s the principle of the thing.  In theory, the blog is a money-making endeavor.  I’m happy enough with that.

Still, none of that answers the question, “What’s the point?”

The point, I think, is just to make this the best blog that I can possibly make it.  To the extent that it’s a thing worth doing, it’s a thing worth doing well, and that’s enough reason—at least for me—to keep doing it. 

With that said, it’s worth asking what makes the blog good.  What’s the So-What?  Why do we care?

This is a question I’ve put off answering for some time now.  A lot of times when I write, I start with an idea, sometimes just an image, and I riff on it for awhile.  I draw it out and write it up and just let it grow organically into, well, whatever it’s going to be.  And then, once I kind of have a feel for the elements in play, only then do I sit down and try to figure out what, exactly, I’m writing.  Only with a foundation in place do I sit down and ask the crucial questions.  What does this character want?  What is this story really about?  What makes it special?

In marketing, we call this the Value Proposition.  Literally, the Value Proposition is the promise of value that a specific product offers to consumers.  In reality, it’s the same as the So-What in a story.  It’s the thing that tells me why I want a given specific product instead of all the other products that’re out there that I could purchase instead.

Consider some examples:
-          Walmart sells at the lowest price.
-          MacDonalds’ food is consistent, familiar, and fast.
-          Google has the simplest, most-complete search engine.
-          Apple designs beautiful, easy-to-use gadgets that do a variety of complex, hi-tech tasks.
-          Target is basically like Walmart, only they have slightly nicer stuff.

By similar logic, practically every good story ever written can be broken down the same way.  There’s a plotline there, sure, but there’s also a value proposition.  There’s an inherent answer to the question: “So what?  Who cares?”
-          Superman is the most powerful superhero.  He’s practically a god among men, but still he believes in Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
-          Batman is a regular guy.  He lives in a super-powered world and overcomes his lack of super powers with dedication and smarts.
-          Spider-Man is a total nerd.  Even though he’s a superhero, he’s still a regular guy.
-          Star Wars is about a nobody farm boy from the middle of the nowhere who’s secretly the heir to a bunch of super powers.  And who hasn’t felt like a nobody from nowhere?

Thus, we can see that in many ways success—in business, commerce, fiction writing, etc.—comes from knowing what you do well and then… doing it well.  Letting people know that you’re doing it well.  Getting the word out there, so that folks know, “Hey, this is what I do.  If you come to me, this is what you’re going to get.”  That’s how you build a brand.  That’s how you get your thing, whatever it is, to stick in peoples’ minds.

My first cut at this was simple: Danno’s Lair is the World’s Best Triathlon / Comic Book / D&D / Craft Beer blog.  Personally, I think I’d be on safe ground if I called it the world’s only Triathlon / Comic Book / D&D / Craft Beer blog, but what are you gonna do?  The point here is not to compete with the absolute maximum number of other potential blogs out there.  The point is to find some relatively unexplored space, occupy it, and be the best one out there doing what you’re doing. 

But my question is: is that enough?  Is “Triathlon / Comic Book / D&D / Craft Beer” really a separate space, or is it just a collection of random things that I just happen to like all at the same time?  In searching for the through-line here, for the So-What, it concerns me is that maybe there isn’t a through-line.  That maybe I’m mis-defining the Value Proposition by defining it in terms of interests or topics.  That maybe there’s something else here, something I’m missing.

So here’s my question, dear Readers.  Is “Triathlon / Comic Book / D&D / Craft Beer” a thing, or am I missing something?  How else might you define a blog’s Value Proposition other than in terms of what it discusses?

Your thoughts are welcome here, people.  Don’t let me down on this.

I use a points system to equate training time within the three disciplines of triathlon.
Looking back at the month’s triathlon training, I gotta say that although it doesn’t look like much, I am exhausted.  And I don’t know if that’s just because I’m in the loading/base training part of the season, or if it’s a reflection of some failure in my training philosophy, or if I’ve just forgotten since last season how physically challenging it is just being a triathlete.  But for whatever reason, I’ve felt like I have absolutely dead legs ever since the YMCA Sweetheart Run two weeks ago.  I ran well in that race, but I came out of it tired and wound up using the next week as an impromptu Rest Week.  And now here I am, it’s only Week 1, and already I can’t believe I have to make it through two more weeks—and three complete weekends!—before my next Rest Week.

I don’t want to say that I’m dreading my hobby, exactly, but I will say that I need to find a way to own the pain a little better.

Eh.  It’s probably my own fault.  I was off the bike all week last week, which is part of why I decided to use that week as a Rest Week, but then Sally and I ran on Saturday, and I ended up going seven miles, which is a decent long run for me.  So then I took Sunday off but went to an early Spin Class on Monday morning—since I had President’s Day off—but unfortunately I got there a little late, which meant that I didn’t have time to really stretch or warm up before class started, and the idiot bitch who ran the class didn’t allow for warm-up time during class time, either.  So here I am dogging the first third of class as I wait for my body to warm up, and the bitch is screaming at us with what can only be described as an unholy shriek from Hell, and I can tell she’s getting mad at me for dogging it, but what are you gonna do?  I didn’t want to risk an injury just for a single stupid spin class.  Eventually, I think she decided to vent her frustration by trying to smoke me personally, but…  Well, that didn’t work out so well.  What happened instead is that she exhausted herself and had to end class a full ten minutes early, with most of her other students panting in exhausted relief that finally the torture was over.  Meanwhile, I kept riding, trying to settle back into a decent, steady-state rhythm after the insanity of her amateur-hour class while wondering if I’d done any serious damage to my knees.

Argh.  Given the way the week started, it was therefore no surprise when my right knee started acting up on me on Wednesday night.  It’s been a little better once I get it warmed up, but my right hamstring and my lower back on the right side are both tight, and the combination is pulling my kneecap down onto the cartilage harder than normal, making it feel like sandpaper when I bend it.  So then I was gonna just stay off it, i.e. not run, during the week this week, but when it hit 56-degrees in Central Park yesterday…  Well, that was more than I could resist.  I went out and ran.  I can’t say that I ran well, but I did run.  And while I don’t know if running helped, as I type this, the muscles around the knee have at least loosened a little.  Here’s to small miracles.

My plan right now is to try to ride about twenty-five miles tomorrow and then put in maybe three-and-a-half running, either afterwards as a brick on Saturday morning  or on Sunday if it feels like too much to try to do it all at once.  That’ll put me at something like 107 points for the week—the equivalent of running about twenty-seven miles for all you pure runners out there.  That’s not a bad week of training, especially for this early in the season, but it’s also not a lot considering where I was at mid-season last year, either. 

Still, I feel tired.  Should 107-points make me feel this tired?  Truthfully, I can’t seem to find any perspective on it right now.

I’ve been doing news and notes in this spot for the past couple of weeks, so with that in mind, here are a few things that caught my attention.

First, Slate.com had a size-comparison graph on Super PACs.  This is interesting mostly because the allowance of Super PACs has really changed the Republican race this year.  Bottom line, it’s doubtful that any of the Republican candidates besides Mitt Romney could’ve survived without their Super PACs.  But with them, we’ve seen also-ran after also-ran surging and resurging in the polls, to the point where it now looks like Rick Santorum will actually win the nomination.  And this in a year when most folks who’re voting for him acknowledge that he doesn’t have much of a chance against the President in the general election.

It’s a weird world out there, and I gotta say that there’s a lot of behavior that I just cannot understand.  Not the least of it is what possible motivation a guy can have for giving tens of millions of dollars to the Gingrich campaign long after the campaign itself has ceased to matter.  What does that money buy?  I really don’t understand it, at all, but I do know that it’s changed the race this year in some very dramatic ways.

My next item is also from Slate—apparently the home brewing movement is a model of Do It Yourself innovation.  Which is fine.  I mean, I don’t know what it proves, but it’s nice that people are taking an interest in drinking good beer, that they are further developing that interest to actually become brewers themselves.  Brewing beer is the kind of thing that I think average Americans once understood well.  But now, like changing a car’s oil or tinkering on a lawnmower’s engine, simply enjoying beer has become an activity that folks have allowed others to do for them.  That’s not good. 

Folks need to, at a minimum, think for themselves enough to establish what they like and why they like it.  When they take it the next step, well, that’s just gravey.

Finally, Tennessee Titans’ head coach Mike Munchak gave an interview this week where he said that, basically, the Titans aren’t that far away from being an elite team.  That if you look at the Giants, the Titans are a similar team, and that they could have success in a similar way.

Personally, I think that analogy is terrible. There are several important things that the Giants have that the Titans do not have:
- An entrenched QB with a proven record.
- At least 3 professional-grade wide receivers.
- A very strong, very deep D-Line rotation.

Also, the Titans have some things that the Giants do not have:
- A true world-beating #1 WR in Kenny Britt (when he’s healthy).
- An established O-Line that is very good at pass-blocking.
- At least one starting-caliber Tight End with a working Achilles Tendon.

My take is that even if you believe that Jake Locker can be as good as Eli Manning has been—and this is by no means a given—the Titans are still no less than THREE monster pass-rushers away from a Super Bowl title using the Giants’ current formula, and that’s the best-case scenario. Not to mention the fact that the Giants’ offense is almost totally predicated on being able to get three really good wide receivers on the field at the same time. The Titans have Kenny Britt, and he is probably better one-on-one than Victor Cruz, but Nate Washington is at best a push against Mario Manningham, and that still leaves Hakeem Nicks, who I think we can all agree is a more-potent, more-consistent option than anyone else on the Titans’ bench besides Britt.

You ask me, the Giants won the Super Bowl for three reasons:
1. You can’t double-cover three guys at the same time.
2. They have an at least decent pass rush at all times
3. They get clutch play from their quarterback.

Right now, the Titans are missing all of those things. Perhaps Locker will have a break-out year and address the bottom issue, but that still leaves some hefty needs heading into the draft.

So yeah, both teams were 7-7 at similar points in the season, and in the end, the Titans just barely missed the playoffs where the Giants made it but almost didn’t.  But.  The Titans were not close to winning their division, and the holes on their roster are glaring.  The Giants, meanwhile, were a great team that had a few key injuries during the season.  With the key players out, they dropped some winnable games.  But when they got their stars back, they were as good as anyone.  I don’t think the Titans, meanwhile, were ever as good as any of the best teams in the League last year.

I’ll leave you guys with a pair of pictures of my girls at the beauty parlor yesterday.  The place was PK Salon at 200 East Main Street in Stratford, CT.  The girls’ stylist is a friend of Sally’s, and she asked me to include the name and address of the shop, so there you have it.

There!  Now go get your hair done!

Friday Hair Metal: Fly Me Courageous!

Heard these guys on Hair Nation last weekend and realized it'd been ten years since I'd heard their signature tune.  So...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Comic Review—Invasion 2: Dungeons and Dragons #1

Until this past weekend, I’d never heard of IDW’s Invasion 2 event.  However, I have all of IDW’s licensed Dungeons and Dragons comics on my Pull List, and as a result, my local comic shop (LCS) guy stuck a copy ofInvasion 2: Dungeons and Dragons #1 in my box this week.  Now, I’m not much on Event comics, and this one in particular made me a little leery seeing as how it crosses over a bunch of titles that don’t—I don’t think—normally occupy any of the same Story Universes.  Plus, this book is set in Eberron, and I don’t normally dig D&D books set in Eberron.  But.  I happen to like my LCS guy, and I know it’s a tough market.  So I decided to just pay up and shut up and give Invasion 2: D&D a chance.

The cover to Invasion 2: D&D is easily my least
favorite part of what was really a very good book.
So.  Invasion 2 is apparently the second edition of an annual story arc event that IDW does in which Lovecraftian horrors attempt to take over reality—every possible reality.  Did I mention that I’m not much on Lovecraft?  Heh.  Fortunately, this book doesn’t drown us in it.  In fact, Invasion 2—Dungeons and Dragons #1 is actually built on the Sherlock Holmes model.  Our hero is Abraxis Wren, a typical Holmes-style world’s-greatest-detective, delightfully rude and insensitive but fully committed to truth, justice, and right, and equally interested in solving unfathomable mysteries of every kind.  Juxtaposed against the backdrop of Eberron’s magic-as-science, this makes for a fascinating set-up.  Wren’s world is almost recognizable.  There’s a whiff of 19th Century London in there, but it’s spliced through with the ever-present magic of Dungeons and Dragons, making it at once odd beyond belief and also wholly familiar.  It’s sort of a steam-punk version of Coruscant save that there’s no steam!  Beyond that, the book’s plotline is a murder-mystery set in an asylum, an appropriate venue given the Lovecraftian turn that we know ahead of time this story’s bound to take eventually.  It all works because of its sheer, dark weirdness and the delightful way in which the story refuses to take itself seriously.

With all of that said, the success of any book as imaginative as this one is always going to hang on its art.  An author can imagine anything, but we as readers can only experience it in comics to the extent that the artist can bring it forth on paper.  Happily, this book’s art is fantastic.  Cartoony and expressive in the close ups but lovingly detailed in the many long establishing shots that give breadth and scope to the cityscape of Wren’s native city Sharn.  In looking at this, I found myself swept away completely again and again.  I have to give big props to artist Valerio Schiti.  This book is insane, and he renders its insanity with brilliant panache.

At this point, I’ve gotta say that although I was dubious coming in, I’m now totally looking forward to the second half of this story.  I may even have to check out some of the Eberron-based Abraxis Wren novels as well.  Writer Paul Crilley has such a good idea going here that honestly, it’d be a shame not to see what else he’s done with it.  Bottom line, Invasion 2: Dungeons and Dragons #1 was a complete kick in the ass.  I read it on the train on my way to work on Tuesday morning, and coming off the long weekend, it was just the thing to get my week started right.  I recommend it whole-heartedly to comic readers of all stripes who’re looking for an awesome break from the same-old, same-old of the Big Two.  This book gets an A+ from me.  Can’t wait to see what’s next!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Beer Review: J.W. Lee's Harvest Limited Edition

This week’s beer is J.W. Lee’s Harvest Limited Edition, ale matured in calvados casks.  It’s an import from the UK, and it comes in at full 11.5% alcohol by volume.  The bottle describes it thusly:

This fully fermented ale can be enjoyed now or laid down like a fine wine for enjoyment to come.

I bought this bottle on a recommendation from our local shop’s best beer guy.  He described it as a fine sipping ale, not something to be chugged but rather to be savored and enjoyed.  The bottle was $10, but then again, at the time the Giants were in the middle of what would turn out to be a successful Super Bowl run, and I splurged.  So now this bottle’s been sitting by for about a month and half, waiting for an excuse to be sampled.

And now, finally, the time has come!

The bottle itself bespeaks a confident simplicity.  There’s nothing showy here, but I get the feeling that this is an ale that doesn’t need to worry about talking.  It looks to me like it knows how to deliver.

We pour, and right off, I’m struck by the look of this ale.  It’s golden but murky, very reminiscent of a fine hard cider.  Sally says that it reminds her of harvest, and I can only agree.  This is a very autumn-looking ale with plenty of sediment. 

Despite the fact that I made little effort with the pour, there’s no head to speak of.  I’m not expecting much carbonation here.

The ale smells fruity, like a cider.  A very fine cider.  You can really smell the influence of the calvados barrels.  There’s also a strong hint of alcohol, as you might expect in an 11.5% ale.

If you’ve never heard of calvados, it’s an apple brandy from the Normandy region of France.  The smell of this beer reminds me of it strongly, and to be honest, I can’t help but smile.

J.W. Lee’s Harvest tastes smoked up front, almost like a light brandy.  It’s bitter in the middle, with a hint of apple in the aftertaste.  And very smooth.  The carbonation is a little more present than I might have expected, and indeed, now that I look a little closer, I’m realizing that some of what I initially took for sediment were actually very tiny bubbles.  Still, this drink is very full bodied, as you would expect from an English ale, but it’s also still silky smooth.  Not at all heavy.  It’s manly without being overwhelming.  The quality comes straight through, and a part of me is wondering if I wouldn’t have done better to age it a few more months—say to the start of next football season.  In any event, I like it, but it’s definitely a “savoring”-type beer.  As Sally says, “One is all you need.”  This an ale that’s meant to be sipped and savored.

Final Verdict
It’s good.  But it’s obviously an artisan’s beer.  It’s not a drinking beer, exactly.  More a beer that you drink while you’re in the study, looking over the plans for your expedition to sub-Saharan Africa.  I can imagine cracking  a bottle of this right after my polo team wins the South Hampton Super Hedge Fund Polo League Championships.  I mean, I feel smarter and more sophisticated just for having tried this stuff, though at 11.5% ABV, the reverse is certainly true.

This beer puts me very much in the mind of the trips I took to France with West Point’s European History department.  In one trip that we took over Spring Break my junior (cow) year, we went to Normandy, and that’s where I discovered calvados.  The taste here reminds me of that, and being that this is a very alcoholic ale, I think, basically, that this is a kind of brandy substitute.  For folks who want a fine after-dinner-type drink but don’t really feel like committing to a full snifter of brandy or calvados.  For me, that trip to Normandy was one of the happiest weeks of my life, and sitting here sipping this beer makes me smile for remembering it.

Good beer and good memories.  I can't help
but smile.
Thanks J.W. Lee.  You guys have kind of made my day.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

D&D Next: Balancing Small Races

As you may have heard, Wizards of the Coast is currently developing a new version of D&D.  Their stated aim is to create a unifying concept of the game, one that will end the Edition Wars that currently rage between players of the newer Fourth Edition of the game--the current edition--and the Third Edition, which lots and lots of Players seem to prefer to the current version.

I personally play the Fourth Edition because I find it to be easier to set-up and far more balanced between PCs and Monsters, but I can see the points raised by Third Edition players, especially the financial ones.  Which is to say that D&D books are expensive, and once you've invested in an entire library of hardcover rule books, it's hard to set those aside permanently a mere handful of years (or less) after you've bought them, read them, and fully incorporated them into your gaming life.  D&D is a complicated game, Third Edition was a particularly complicated version on top of that, and spending time and money to learn to run it well was a substantial commitment.  I get that folks don't want to dump their current system just because the company they bought the system from needs to Publish-or-Perish.  And then, too, the Third Edition rules allowed for near-infinite flexibility of character design, especially as it relates to character multi-classing.  Folks like multi-classing, and the Fourth Edition's system for it is a hot mess.

So, bottom line, the Third Edition folks have a point.  We'll leave it at that.

Halfings were introduced right at the
game's very beginnings.
What I want to talk about today is a topic I found on the WotC D&D Community Forum: How do you balance the rules for Small races?

First, the issue: there are several small races in D&D--halflings, gnomes, kobolds, and goblins.  Of these, halflings are the most famous, being based in large part on J.R.R. Tolkien's hobbits.  As a Player, it's cool to be able to play the little guy, the star of the most famous fantasy books in history, but it's also a problem in that small characters can't wield weapons that are the same size as those wielded by normal-sized characters.  This was true in Tolkien's books, but in the game it results in a damage penalty that varies according to which edition of D&D a Player is playing.

For example, in Third Edition, Small characters had to use weapons that were one size smaller than normal, with the penalty coming as a loss of a die-size.  So a halfing wielding a smaller-than-normal longsword no longer dealt d8 damage with it.  It had to be sized for him, and thus dealt only d6 damage.  This was often simply abreviated to where the halfling in question now simply wielded a short sword instead of a longsword, but it was still worth noting, especially for powers that relied on a specific type of weapon.  In Third Edition, a halfling character that relied specifically on using a halfling-sized dagger was at a substantial disadvantage.

Thankfully this issue was simplified in Fourth Edition.  Small-sized creatures are now only allowed to wield weapons that are either Small or Versatile, and if they wield Versatile weapons (like a longsword) they have to wield them two-handed.  In many ways this is the same rule, but like a lot of Fourth Edition, it's much simpler to manage.

In any event, Third Edition had mechanics to balance the damage penalty that small characters took.  They got +1 to their Armor Class (AC), +1 to attack rolls, and a +4 bonus to Hide checks.  However, Fourth Edition mechanics give no specific size-based advantages, and indeed, a good case can be made that small characters are at a substantial disadvantage in the current version of the game.  One can argue that racial and class benefits make up for the loss, and that may be true, but it's at best merely a single point of view.  Bottom line, if D&D Next is looking to re-balance the game and "get back to the core of D&D," then it seems likely that they'll have to re-address this issue.

My question, dear Readers, is this: How would you balance the damage penalty for Small races?  Did you like the way that Third Edition handled it, or do you prefer the racial characteristics system of the Fourth Edition?  Or is there something else you'd like to see?

I posted my opinion here, but I'd really like to hear what some of my own Players think.  So... what'd'ya got?

Monday, February 20, 2012

SoL: Children of the Night Goddess. Encounter 1

As promised, here's the first installment of the new single-player adventure based loosely on the game I'm running on Myth-Weavers, The Sellswords of Luskan.  It's a game set nominally in the Forgotten Realms, but the continuity here is SoL in-game continuity.  We pick up the story a few months after the party conquered the city, setting themselves up as the new High Captains of Luskan.


The most ironic thing, by far, was the fact that the compound had been nearly deserted when they hit it.  Thus the attack, devastating though it was, had actually killed few.  Lucyan, the Netherese Chief of Station, had sent most of the men out on missions weeks beforehand—messengers to Mirabar, a pair of agents to Silverymoon, trade representatives to the Moonshaes mission, even an assassination team for a particularly troublesome diplomat at Dark Arrows Keep—leaving himself with little more than a skeleton force for defense of the main Luskan fortress itself.  Granted, Lucyan had still left himself a force that under normal circumstances would have been more than adequate—he’d had at least a pair of senior priestesses, an understrength company of shadar-kai foot soldiers, and perhaps as many as a handful of monks from the Order of the Dark Moon, all reinforced by the inherent defenses of a Shadovar Enclave located well within the Plane of Shadow—but still… all of that was as nothing to the force that a senior agent of the Netherese Empire could have commanded at the height of his power.  All of which meant that despite the destruction of the Luskan stronghold, most of Lucyan’s network was still intact; it was just scattered.  Disorganized.  Unable or unwilling to communicate.  Which turned out to be little different in practical reality than if the network itself had actually been destroyed in detail.

Well.  What else should one expect?  Luskan is a sty.  A haven of despair and villainy.  It’s this, after all, that in the past has made it such a useful recruiting ground and base of operations for Shadovar agents.  The difference is that now it’s the Sharrans who’re on the run instead of their enemies.  The only surprise is that so many of your allies seem to have given into the city’s native despair.  It’s your allies who’ve disappeared, and it’s up to you to find them.

You sigh.  Thinking about it makes you angry, but for now, your rage has no target.  You need allies, and you need information.  That’s why you’re in Southtown, heading through the old Captain’s Court towards the South Docks and Rat Alley.  You’d gotten a note from Ovid.  There was supposed to be a meeting of those still loyal to the Cause.

A chill breeze blows up off the water, and you pull your cloak tighter around you, lowering your head.  There’s nothing to be gained by attracting attention, and anyway, it’s still cold in the city even now in early spring.  Around you, the city is a hopeless wreck, a hard-used derelict, forgotten or abandoned by anyone with sense.  The walls are pockmarked and ruined.  Gaping holes stand open where locals have scavenged the stone for their own personal use.  Closer on, a few buildings stand on shaky legs.  Most are burnt-out hulks, standing like decrepit skeletons in the hard northern night.  One, a once enormous tower maybe a mile distant, looks like it might have been hit by a meteor.  Weird lights play across its ruined spires, and its aura is chilling, even from across the harbor.  Beyond it, an enormous earthmote hangs in the sky.

The Spellplague didn’t just hit this place, you think.  It damned-near flattened it.

You walk quickly down towards the harbor, but on the docks it’s more of the same.  Most of the buildings are little more than unclaimed kindling.  A few look like they might be sound, but these are all boarded up, many with doors that have been visibly chained shut.  There are few people out on the streets, but those that are have the wary, tough-eyed look of street muscle.  Thugs, cut-throats, or simple gang look-outs… you’ve no way to know for sure and less desire to find out.  As always, the citizenry is a hodgepodge of humans mixed with the lower races.  Men predominate, but in a three-block area, you see more than a few goblins and kobolds and even an orc riding herd on a string of skinny working girls.  Gnolls and perhaps even ogres are likely hiding deeper in the shadows.  The orc’s whores smile when you approach, but their desperate looks are anything but appealing.  In one alley, a pair of street-urchins huddles under a blanket, eyeing with envy the fire that a group of human street-toughs has set in a steel rain barrel across the street.  It’s a sign of the city that the bravos won’t share their warmth—even with children.

The Dark Mother would be proud.

You walk on and notice at last that people are staring at you.  Your weapons and armor—both clean and serviceable—mark you like a beacon as an outsider.  Before long, you begin to get the idea that you need to get indoors.  Fortunately, the meeting, at a tavern called the Tipsy Mermaid, is just around the corner.  In another moment, you’re inside, doffing your cloak and scarf.  You recognize the kobold Vilavarex instantly.  He’s a weird little bastard to be sure, but he’s smart, and he’s loyal.  In Luskan, that counts for a lot.

There are a few others present, but none look familiar.  None look like Sharrans.  After a moment, you pull up a chair beside the kobold.  “Vilavarex.”

He nods to you without looking.  In front of him, he’s spread the cards of his Tarot deck.  “Something is not right here,” he says.  He flips a card.  It’s the Ten of Pentacles—reversed.  “Something is…“

Behind you, the door bangs open.  An ogre stoops and then comes in through the door.  Snow swirls behind him, but he makes no effort to close the door, instead leaving it open to the elements.  On his heels, a quintet of shadar-kai warriors enter with weapons drawn.

Beside you, Vilavarex finally finishes his thought.  “Something is wrong.”  Vilavarex looks up, suddenly alarmed.  “That.  By the Dark Mother, this is not right.  Not natural.”

The little kobold has a point.  Those shadar-kai haven’t said a word.  Haven’t even blinked.  So… glassy-eyed stares, and in the company of an ogre?  And for that matter, what’s going on with the ogre?  Ogres usually only have one mood—angry.  But this one looks calm, even placid.  Which doesn’t change the fact that it’s got a greatclub, and that it’s closing the distance in a decidedly purposeful way.

You come quickly to your feet, and beside you, Vilavarex does the same.  This is about to get interesting.

Click here to download the Excel spreadsheet for Encounter 1.  That will take you to a ZIP file I've stored in Google Docs.  When you're ready to make monster knowledge checks, those results are posted here.

If you've got any questions or comments, please post them below.  And enjoy!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Connecticut Science Center

Sally and I took the kids to the Connecticut Science Center today to see the animation exhibit.  As you can see, we had a blast.  And to say the least, I took some pics.


One of the challenges was to build a T-Rex.  This was the solution that Emma
and I came up with.
After the T-Rex, we built this fort.  And of you think this is a monstrosity,
you should have seen it when we actually finished!
It was an animation exhibit, sponsored by Cartoon Network.  The girls drew
several of the CW characters--none of whom I knew.
They raced these crazy square-wheeled truck things.  Emma kept winning,
which drove Hannah CRAZY!
My beautiful wife.
Hannah loved all these crazy engineering challenges.  She's a natural
with design of all sorts.
Oh no!  Girls!  L-l-look right behind you!

Sunday Comics, Day 4. Bronx Angel: Born Leader (Page 3)

Bronx Angel: Born Leader, Page 3.
Click here to view at Full Size
Last week, I said that the reason we hired Randy Valiente to draw this book is the way he captures action and motion.  We see that nicely here, especially in that first panel.  I love that panel.  It was exactly what I was looking for here.

For the composition, well, for this book I did a lot of the page layouts myself.  Not so much the figure placement but rather the panel layouts, which are a key component of timing and story emphasis.  I mention that because at the time I was writing this, I was not only working in the Bronx, I was also reading the now-famous Bendis/Maleev run on Daredevil, one of my all-time favorite comic story arcs.  That run is famous for the way Bendis wrote the dialogue, but the thing that really spoke to me was the way that these guys laid the book out.  It was a lot of little panels, punctuated by the occasional really BIG panel that exploded the points of emphasis off the page.  That technique worked for me as a reader, and I tried to emulate it here as a writer.  This specific page is the first of many where we'll see that.

As always, to read the story from the beginning, click the Sunday Comics tag below.  That's what it's there for.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Saturday Morning, and Not Much Is Going On.

My favorite part of the weekend by far is early on Saturday morning, before my wife or my kids get up.  The house is quiet, and I have time to read the news, get a cup of coffee, update my games, and basically do whatever I want.  I'm a busy guy.  These early weekend mornings are pretty much the only time all week that I have completely to myself.  No one needs anything from me, and they won't for awhile, and I don't need to be anywhere.  It's so vanishingly rare that I have time to myself like that that I actually find myself looking forward to waking up early in the weekends just to have a little time to myself.

I know.  Crazy, right?

What can I say?  I've been getting up at 5:00am since I was a fourteen-year-old high school swimmer heading off to morning practice before school.  Being in the Army certainly didn't help, and working a job with an early start-time in NYC hasn't helped, either.  So at this point, the habit is hard-wired.

Today's a little different in that my games are updated, and nothing real interesting is going on in the news.  Plus, I already talked about the new SI cover model this week.  So...  what to do?  I'm certainly not going to sit here and write anything.  Too much like work.  Instead, let me introduce you to a couple of blogs I've discovered recently.

Art by Stowe
James Stowe is an artist.  I don't know him personally, but I found him via Myth-Weavers when I was looking for a way to teach my girls D&D.  His blog-post D&D For 8-Year-Olds is an instant classic, easily one of the cleverest uses of D&D I've seen in a while.

The Id DM
I discovered The Id DM after listening to an episode of the Critical Hits podcast found via iTunes.  The blog's creator, Michael, is a practicing psychologist, and he uses that background--specifically, his background in statistics--to analyze D&D and its game-play.  He's also got a pretty good post about the issues that WotC has to confront in order to successfully launch the next edition of D&D.

Run Dangerously
And finally, RunDangerously.  This blog belongs to a local lawyer/runner/photographer (he's specifically a hybrid Lawyer/Runner with the Photographer multi-class feat), and I found it when I was looking for race results for the Stratford YMCA Sweetheart Run.  He posted a bunch of really cool pics from the race, and there you have it.  To say the least, the guy is a better runner than I am, but I personally just like seeing all those race pics.  Racing is a decidedly social event, and RunDangerously captures that nicely.


If you're wondering, the rest of the day for me is looking pretty relaxed.  Sally and I are going for a long run later this morning up at the Trumbull Rail Trail.  After that, I gotta go take my bike to the shop--the wheels felt a little out of true last time I went for a real ride--and then I gotta stop by the library.  And if I get a chance, I'll probably swing by my local comic shop (LCS) to keep looking for a decent comic trade paperback for my daughter Emma's birthday.  

Beyond that, I hope I get a chance to write another beer review this afternoon, but if that doesn't happen, well, at least maybe I'll get a chance to drink some beer, anyway.

Anybody else out there got anything planned for this weekend?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Mad Science: Seamus Romney Edition

Seamus Romney in happier times.

Y’know, I’ve given this some thought, and I finally think I understand why Republicans aren’t voting for Mitt Romney.  It’s not because he’s a Mormon, and it’s not because he’s a political weathervane.  It’s because he is a complete fucking asshole.  To wit, look how he treats his dog.  He put the poor bastard in a crate on his car’s roof rack and then drove all the way to Canada with him like that.  He then he had the temerity to claim that the dog actually liked it up there, and this despite reports that the dog had uncontrolled diarrhea during the trip and then ran away rather than get back in the crate mid-trip!  Now look, I don’t know if you’ve ever had a dog, but if you have, you probably know at least one thing about dogs, and it’s this: it takes a HELL OF A LOT to make a dog actually run away from its family in the middle of a totally unfamiliar piece of territory.  I mean, good God.  I’d actually considered voting for Romney in the general were he to win the nomination, but there is just no way in Hell I’ll do it now.  A guy with so little empathy that he can actually strap his very own family dog to his car’s luggage rack simply cannot be trusted with the responsibility of deploying soldiers to defend our nation’s overseas interests.  It’s obvious that he’ll waste lives to no purpose—and likely not even feel bad about it afterwards. 

Bottom line, if you can’t empathize with your own family dog, why in Hell should I think you’re going to give two figs for some poor bastard from West Virginia who only enlisted for the college money?

Answer: I don’t think that.  In fact, I’m starting to expect we’d hear some variation on Marie Antoinette on this whole issue.  To wit: “Why join the Army?  Why not just have your family liquidate some of its portfolio holdings and pay for college that way?”

This is why “Fuck you, I’m keeping mine” fails as a political philosophy.  Because the candidates you get who’d actually say something like that and mean it are likely to be the same people that think it’s a good idea tie their dogs to the luggage racks of their cars.  I mean, look, it’s not the complicated.  The Republicans basically wanted the meanest candidates in America, and… Tada!  That’s what they got.

And that's all I've got time for today.  Have a good weekend!