Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arbonne Fizzy Sticks

To say the least, I was not overly excited when my wife Sally signed up to be a sales consultant for Arbonne.  I don't want to get into it too much, but to say that we fought about it is the understatement of the year.  But regardless of my thoughts on the matter, Sally signed up, and now it's done.  Finis.  Sayonara.  Game over.

I may not be a fan of Arbonne,
but I can admit that their fizzy
sticks are endurance recovery
Why is this important?  Because while I may hate Arbonne with an abiding passion, I can still admit that their "fizzy stick" drinks are without doubt the very best post-workout recovery drinks known to man.  They make me feel better after every workout absolutely without fail.  I literally chugged the things when I had the flu, and I put at least one down every single time I go for a long run these days.

If you're wondering, fizzy sticks are basically a mildly caffeinated form of Gatorade, save that they have about a thousand times more vitamins than Gatorade, and they get their caffeine from green tea extract.  There's not too much sugar--at only 2 grams, I would actually prefer it if there was more--but there're plenty of electrolytes, and like I said, they always make me feel great, even after a serious effort.

Anyway, I don't want to push these things too hard, but being married to an Arbonne consultant, I feel contractually obligated to tell you how to order these things so that you can try them for yourself.  All you have to do is go to the Arbonne website, search through until you find the fizzy sticks (hint: I gave you the link above; I personally recommend pomegranate), and use my wife's ID number (12766622) to complete the transaction.  It's important to use Sally's ID number, of course, because she gets paid by Arbonne on commission.

So that's it.

Seriously, I don't care if you buy anything else from Arbonne ever again, but if you're doing serious endurance training this season, give the fizzy sticks a try.  You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Procrastination & Spring Fever

I’m on the train right now, and today’s Game Post for the Sellswords of Luskan is done, and I know I ought to start working on some writing, but man, I just do not want to.  
So here’s a question for the FR geeks in the room: How many of you know who Loviatar is?  If your party was being chased by minions of Bane, and you suddenly ran into a church with runes celebrating the power of Loviatar, would you know that your party was in trouble?  I’m just curious.
If you’re wondering, The Sellswords got lost in the woods this week up in the wilds of the Spine of the World.  Then the temperature started dropping, and enough of them failed their attendant Constitution checks that they had to seek shelter.  But they accidentally wandered into the Shadowfell (thanks to a bunch of failed Woodland Lore checks), and so when they finally found a place to rest, it was an abandoned farmhouse owned by a vampire priestess of Loviatar.  But they made the Arcana and Forbidden Lore checks necessary to realize that they had a problem, only I didn’t know if they Players themselves would know who Loviatar was, so I had the vampire lady explain that Loviatar is the Lady of Pain and Bane’s consort.
Heh.  I hope that’s correct.  I didn’t look it up or anything; I’m just working from memory here.
Anyway, now we’re into a combat encounter with the vampire, a dark angel of Loviatar, and a couple of imps.  This one ought to be a slightly more strenuous test of our heroes’ mettle.
If you haven’t guessed, I don’t want to work today.  There’s a new micro-brewery around the block from my house, and they have an excellent White IPA, the Honeyspot Road White IPA from the new Two Roads Brewery.  

What’s a “white IPA”?
The IPA part refers to India Pale Ale, so called because in the olden days, the British used to use tons of hops in the beer they brewed for the East India Company’s ships’ crews in order to help keep the beer fresh during the long voyage to the subcontinent.  The “white” part of the title refers to the base grain from which the beer was brewed; “white” beers are wheat beers, or weizens if they’re brewed in Germany.  My wife bought me a six-pack of the Honeyspot Road White IPA on Friday last week, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’ve got one left in the fridge back home, and even though it’s only Tuesday--and it’s not even seven in the morning here--I still hear it calling my name.
It’s finally getting a little warmer outside, and frankly, if I had my druthers, I’d like to go for a long bike ride and then have my gaming group over for a long session of drinking and D&D.  I know I’m a geek, and I’m good with it.  I’m just sayin’, that’s how I’d like to spend my day.

Sneax & Elaina Emboo, Chapter 4

Our story so far:
     Sneax owes "rent money" to Russitan Lassiter, a dangerous thug from the Docks District of the portside city of Wanderhaven.  Desperate to avoid getting her ears cut off for failing to pay, she volunteers to help Lassiter with a shady deal up at the Old Church, only to discover that the deal involves a Fire Elf!  
     Sneax and her best friend, the apprentice mage Elaina Emboo, are put on lookout duty while Drax the Fire Elf and Lassiter finish their deal, but then they see torches approaching.
     And now... Chapter 4: Torches in the Night

Monday, January 28, 2013

Triathlon Diary: 1/21 to 1/27

It was a pretty good week of triathlon training this week, and especially coming off of having the flu, I'm satisfied with where I am.  It'll be tricky to balance the need to get with the need to stay reasonably rested as the next few weeks come along, but this was a good week of base building, so I guess we'll see how it goes.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Comics: Bronx Angel--Politics By Another Method (Page 14)

Bronx Angel: Politics By Another Method, page 14.
Click here to see the page at full size.
I posted a link on Facebook yesterday basically saying that I was pleased to see how Sen. John Kerry's confirmation hearings are going.  If you haven't been following, Kerry is the President's nominee for Secretary of State in the second term, and it looks like he's going to breeze through the confirmation process.  Yesterday's report was specifically about Kerry's call for the U.S. to get its financial house in order, in which he called our country's fiscal irresponsibility and inability to make difficult choices our country's most pressing national security issue.  More specifically, without a strong economy underpinning the goals of our foreign policy, we'll be less able to influence other regions of the globe, and we'll have less influence by way of leadership and/or setting the example of what a successful country is supposed to look like.  That message got strong bipartisan support.

Warning: There is a LOT of ranting after the jump.  If you don't want to read it, don't click through.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cartoon Night--Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes

The girls and I sat down last night and watched a bunch of episodes from the Marvel cartoon series, The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.  Season two is finally out on Netflix, so we've been catching up.  Last night we watched from Episode 2 to Episode 6.  At least, I think it was Episode 6.  It was the one with The Guardians of the Galaxy, so needless to say, Emma and I were very excited.

The one weird thing about this episode, though, was the line up of the Guardians. We had Peter Quill, Rocket Racoon, and Groot, all of whom were expected given that they're the core members of the team, but they also added in Quasar and Adam Warlock, which is fine but a little strange given that neither is slated to be in the Guardians' movie next year.  Meanwhile, they left out Drax the Destroyer and Gamora, and they're both supposed to be in the movie.

Anyway, all of this is ultimately irrelevant because for whatever reason Marvel Studios has cancelled Earth's Mightiest Heroes in favor of more shows like the new Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon.


Earth's Mightiest Heroes was awesome.  Ultimate Spider-Man frankly skews a little young for my taste.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday Mad Science: Manhattan Trailer Parks, Women in Combat, and Old Man Winter

As I write this, it’s eight degrees outside, and I gotta say, all this cold weather is messing with my mind.  I went running on Wednesday afternoon, and I swear it was the coldest run of my life.  Forget winters in Korea; this was no-shit cold.  Temps in the low twenties with maybe eighteen miles per hour of wind coming in right off the frozen Long Island Sound.  Yikes!
I was fine for the first four miles or so, but then I got past the beach and made the turn for home, and suddenly the wind was in my face, blowing straight in off the salt marsh, and it honest-to-God took my breath away.
I’ve heard that running or riding in cold weather forces your body to burn more calories, and although science seems to dispute this, the fact is that I felt it.  When I got done with Wednesday’s run, I felt like I’d been on the wrong end of a beating.  MapMyRun seemed to think I’d burned something like a thousand calories; it felt more like two thousand.
Anyway, looking at the weather app on my phone, it looks like it’s supposed to warm up a little later today--all the way into the upper twenties, wahoo!--before getting back to seasonably cold weather starting next week.  I can tell you right now that I’m about ready for that.  I haven’t been on my bike at all this week, and I miss it.  But not enough to ride in single-digit temps in the mornings on my way to work.
“The apartment of New York City’s future, as the city imagines it, has all the amenities of modern life: wheelchair-accessible bathroom, a full kitchen, space for entertaining and access to a gym, communal lounge, front and back porches and a rooftop garden — all in 250 to 370 square feet...
Forty percent of the units will be affordable, restricted to tenants earning no more than $77,190 a year, with the rest at market rate. Rents start at $914 a month for those earning up to $38,344 a year, well below Manhattan’s average studio rent of $2,000, and go up to $1,873 for those making $77,190 or less.”
Truth is, it’s a facinating design.  Like a part of the International Space Station or something.  There’s a single open area that’s both dining room and bedroom--you either fold the table out to eat or bring the bed down out of the wall to sleep--and then there’s a kitchen nook and a bathroom/closet area.  Moreover, these things are modular.  They’re basically little containers which you stack “like legos” to create a whole ten-story building.  Presumably there’s some kind of framework built around the legos to provide access and structural support to the building as a whole, but the article didn’t go into that.
Anyway, as I noted earlier, the whole thing reminded me of a trailer park, except that this being New York, the trailers were stacked on top of one another rather than being laid out in a grid like you’d see in any other part of the country.  But what’s crazy about it is that people are gonna sign up to live there--and that they probably can’t wait to do so.
From Wikipedia's Commons.
Women have been flying OH-58s in combat
for years now.
I read this morning that women are finally being allowed to serve in combat in the military, and frankly, I can’t help but wonder what the Hell these people think that women in uniform have been doing up until to now.  A friend of mine was killed flying a Kiowa Warrior over Iraq a few years ago by an insurgent with an RPG, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t up there doing her nails.  If the brass is only now realizing that we’ve had women fighting for the last decade, then it’s high time they got their heads out of their asses.
While we’re talking about the military...
I don’t know that I still have a right to have an opinion about it this stuff anymore, but I still follow the issues as best I can, and I thought it was interesting to see some of the reactions to yesterday’s news from some of my friends who are still in the service.  One of my friends who’s a pilot said something like, “Hooray!  It’s too late for me, but this is great for the women of the future.”  Undoubtedly true.  Meanwhile, one who is an infantry officer said, essentially, “I hope we can do this without turning the Army into a social experiment.  It would be a Hell of a shame if we compromised our nation’s security just to appease the Liberal agenda.”  Also a fair point.  
It’s hard for me to imagine that there are more than five women in a hundred who would be physically capable of winning a bayonette fight against, say, a North Korean infantryman.  With that said, however, I think it’s fair to ask how many bayonette fights there are in the American Army’s future.  I mean, I had a Boxing professor one time who claimed to have won a bayonette fight as a young officer in Vietnam--he was the only person I’ve ever met who has even so much as claimed to have fixed a bayonette in anger--but you know, those guys are always so full of shit that who knows what the truth really was.  It could easily be that he merely fixed his bayonette in place and then shot some guy.  Most of the women soldiers I know could manage that.
In any event, the Army’s problem isn’t that it isn’t effective or that it’s somehow going to lose its edge.  It may well lose something while it’s integrating women into the infantry, but even if it does, I think you have to keep the change in perspective.  If the Army after the First Gulf War was an 8 out of 10 on the effectiveness scale, then let’s acknowledge that the last decade or so of war has had an effect and realistically assess it now as at, say, 6/10.  Then we’ll throw in this issue of women in the infantry and cut it again, giving these guys a score of maybe 5/10.
The thing is, even if the U.S. Army is at 5/10, the next closest competitor is probably at 3/10, and it’s France.  The next closest one after that is probably closer to 2/10, and it’s Japan.  Yes, pacifist Japan has--easily--the second most powerful military in the world, and they’re on our side.  
You don’t believe me, do you?  Heh.
Believe it or not, it’s actually MacArthur’s fault. He re-wrote the Japanese constitution, and he put their defense spending levels right in the document.  The Japanese are constitutionally obligated to spend exactly 1% of GDP on their self-defense force, and since Japan has had the second-largest economy on the planet for the past thirty years or more, that puts their historic military spending levels far beyond those of either Russia or China.  Add in their relative technical advantage, and voila!  Our next closest military competitor is also our second-strongest ally.
My point here is that the U.S. Army is not in any real danger of losing any wars on the battlefield.  No one fights the American Army head-on, nor is there anyone who is even seriously considering making the attempt.  No, the Army’s efficacy is not at issue, nor is it really a potential problem as far as the nation’s security is concerned.  The problem is that the Army is too effective by half, to the point where people are trying to use what is fundamentally a blunt instrument to do things that, honestly, you really ought to do with a scalpel.  
I mean, yeah, you want to do brain surgery, the first thing you need to do is crack open the skull.  But after that, it’s time to put away the bone saw and get out an instrument that’s more well-suited to fine work.  But in this country, we only believe in quick fixes, meaning that as long as we’ve got a doctor with a bone saw, and he’s already standing right there next to the patient, we might as well have him try to perform the whole operation, even if comes out a little messy.
This is why I shouldn’t comment on this stuff.  It is, in fact, the largest part of why I left the Army.  Bottom line, I just wanted to do different work with my life.  
That doesn’t change the fact that the very vast majority of diplomatic and international political problems in this world could be better solved with diplomacy, economic tools, and statecraft than with the simple hammer of physical violence.  You may argue that the Army is more than just a hammer, but I would counter that it’s mission is and has been to fight and win our nation’s wars and that anything else is a misapplication of the Army’s fundamental properties.  
Which is to say that it’s fine to carry a big stick, but you still have to have the ability to talk softly.  It strikes me that somewhere along the line this country has forgotten that.  They want to hit you with the stick first and then try to bargain with your relatives while we all stand around looking at your corpse.
My daughter Emma has to be the most voracious reader of comic books that I’ve eveer seen.  She’s read nearly every comic that I own that’s at least semi-appropriate for a seven-year-old, and all week she’s been demanding new books.  So I finally gave in and introduced her to the Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy, of which I have eighteen or so issues stored on my Nexus tablet.
Marvel/Disney released this concept art to support the
forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film last year.
Peter Quill (aka Star Lord) is in the center.
Rocket Racoon is on his left (our right).
Needless to say, Emma’s favorite character in the Guardians is Rocket Racoon.  My question is, with a Guardians’ movie scheduled for release next year starring Rocket Racoon, how the Hell is Marvel going to introduce the character?  They’ve kind of hinted at Peter Quill’s new super hero origin in some of the recent Marvel NOW stuff, but Rocket Racoon is such a weird idea--granted a weird idea that’s well-executed, but still--that it’s easy to imagine him derailing the whole movie.
More Rocket Racoon.
From Wikipedia's Commons, per usual.
Anyway, I’ve also been reading a Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning joint--Boom! Studios’ The Hypernaturals.  The series started out kind of slow for my taste, but the last few issues have been terrific.
Fact is, there’s not enough good sci fi out there, especially in comics.  But The Hypernaturals, at least, helps fill the void.
And that’s about all I’ve got time for this week.  Have a great weekend!

Friday Hair Metal: Somebody to Love

I was gonna play "White Rabbit" but decided that this fits my mood a little better.  Less trippy, more straight-up rock-n-roll.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

First Race of the Season!

Sally and I are definitely running the Stratford Sweetheart Run this year.  The race starts at Booth Hill Memorial Park in Stratford, and from there it's a winding single loop course with rolling hills and one tough climb at the three-mile mark.

The race is on Saturday, February 9th, with a race start at 10:00 am.  It's $17, or $22 after February 2nd.

Come on out!  We'd love to see you there.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thoughts on the Sellswords and D&D Next Playtesting

We’re about two weeks into the new and improved “Revenge of the Sellswords of Luskan” campaign, a resurrected version of my formerly long-running Play-by-Post (PbP) campaign, The Sellswords of Luskan, which is/was hosted on the Myth-Weavers forum.  The original Sellswords ran for about four years using D&D’s 4th Edition ruleset, from 5th Level up to about 14thLevel. 

Sellswords was kind of a Stronghold campaign, heavy on high concept and Forgotten Realms divine mythology.  I’d like to re-use a lot of those same concepts for Revenge, but I've only just now had time to sit down and figure out what the immediate arc of the game is going to be.  Part of that was me wanting to see how my Players would react to the new ruleset and to the changes that it necessitated to their characters, but there was also a certain amount of inertia and flu-inspired laziness as well, so we’re not off to what I’d have termed a scintillating start.  Still, we've had one medium-difficulty encounter—my guys breezed through that—and then I ran a little Skills Challenge, and now that I’ve had a little time to plan, maybe business will begin to pick up.  At this point, all I need to do is find time to dig up a map that I can use for a woodland homestead, and we’ll be good to go.

For what it’s worth, my thoughts on the new Ruleset as it applies to my game are as follows.  As you read this, you might want to keep in mind that the party are 7th Level PCs, and my Players are all experienced gamers, if not super-experienced with the Next ruleset specifically.

     I cannot for the life of me figure out what the logic is behind the monster creation mathematics in D&D Next.  It’s not a huge problem, but I’m planning to run a version of Against the Giants in the very near future, and I know that I’ll need to make and/or customize several monsters for it.  Even if Wizards of the Coast (WotC) releases a brand new version of Against the Giants, some customization will still be necessary because our Giants are Fire Cultists, and I’m not sure how to even begin to do what has to be done.  There must be a logical way to level things up or down, but I’ve been looking at it and sure as Hell haven’t figured out what it is.

Against the Giants was an instant
classic when it was released.
     Our party is not tremendously well-balanced.  What’s nice, though, is that this hasn’t mattered yet—at all.  We have two Clerics, a Fighter (Barbarian, actually), a Monk, and a Wizard/Rogue.  And, oh by the way, one of the Clerics is actually a Shaman.  So we had to home-brew some rules to make all that happen.

o   To make the Barbarian, I took away my man’s heavy armor proficiency, giving him instead a number of Rages equal to the number of Daily rages he’d have had at the same level in 4th edition.  At 7th Level, that’s two.  When he rages, our Barbarian gets +2 to Strength and an additional damage bonus—I don’t remember how much off the top of my head.  I considered keeping some of the effects from the 4e Barbarian class’s rage powers (like knocking a target prone on a hit), but ultimately decided not to get too exotic while we’re in the middle of playtesting rules that are already experimental. 

o   To make the Shaman, I took away both heavy and medium armor proficiency, encouraged my Player to take the Hedge Wizard feat tree, and then augmented his familiar so that it has enhanced hit points and can make OAs.  This has worked great.  A Cleric who can make ranged Touch attacks really has very little reason ever to close to melee range, and he therefore has little need of heavy armor.  In fact, I would argue that one of the worst things in D&D Next right now is the basic assumption that all Clerics need heavy armor.  Reality is that most Clerics do not need heavy armor; heavy armor is only necessary if you build a specifically melee-attack based Cleric, and my experience is that most folks would rather use their Lance of Faith instead of closing the distance and going hand-to-hand.

o   To make our Wizard/Rogue, I simply let my Player take three levels of Wizard and two levels of Rogue.  This worked great, and it was balanced by the lower weapon and spell attack modifiers and by the fact that she has only a few spells and one maneuver.  The single home-brew change that I made here is that the PC only got the +1 to an ability score at 1st level.  So she got +1 to Intelligence for being a Wizard but not +1 to Dexterity for being a Rogue.

o   One final note on PCs: our Monk is a world-beater.  He’s a High Elf with Mage Armor as his Cantrip, and that gives him a total AC of 19—considerably better than our Fighter (Barbarian).  I considered disallowing this, but ultimately couldn't think of a reason why, so we’re just playtesting it.  But so far, he’s a better tank than our tank, and his Flurry of Blows does more damage more consistently than our Fighter’s regular two-handed Maul attacks do.

     After having run 4e in the Paragon Tier, our one combat was a breeze.  If you’re wondering, I use Google Drive’s Draw program for our maps, give everyone access, and it’s been terrific.  In the modern age, D&D is a great game to play remotely, and I find that I prefer playing PbP with Next to playing around the tabletop.  The role-play aspects tend to be more organic and literary, and the combat is fast as can be.  It’s a nice balance.  My one issue is that I’m having to think of more story now because I can’t rely on a long combat to occupy the party for a week to ten days while I figure out what’s gonna happen next in the campaign’s plot line.  In 4e, filibustering was easy.  With Next, combats last two or three days at most, meaning that whatever’s gonna happen after combat has to be ready before combat even begins.  That’s not a problem, exactly, but I’ve also not quite adjusted to the new workload yet, either.

That’s about all I’ve got, except to say that I’m looking forward to the official D&D Next Barbarian design in the next Playtest packet.  It’ll be interesting to see how they approached some of the issues. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sneax & Elaina Emboo, Chapter 3

The Old Church

Wanderhaven has been a port city for a long, long time.  In the days when single-masted longships plied the ocean's trade routes without ever leaving sight of shore, the rocky headlands and natural cove on the eastern edge of the Bregaen Sea were a natural landmark for sailors looking to gauge their progress or to find shelter from a storm.  In time, the place became a common meeting point for seaborne merchants looking to trade goods, and a small community grew to support those for whom this once rocky and inhospitable spot now represented a port and perhaps a bit of comfort and safety amidst the ever-present dangers of the sea.  On the bluff overlooking the new port town, sailors went to pay homage to the gods they held in highest esteem—Poseidon, the patron god of the sea, and Hades, the god of fate and death.  Over the next century, a great and mighty temple grew, and in time, Poseidon was adopted as the patron god of not just the sea but of Wanderhaven itself.
But all things change.  This is as true for sea travel as it is for the fickle faiths of men.  The following centuries saw the invention of new tools and new kinds of navigation.  Men built first larger ships with heavier hulls and then smaller, nimbler ships with more masts and ever more ingenious designs.  In time, two- and three-masted caravels sliced through the water, carving new paths and opening new ports far from Wanderhaven, a place that once seemed so remote but was now home itself to a great multitude of people—with more coming every day.  As men tamed the seas, they became seduced by their own brilliance and wisdom.  The old faiths and fears were replaced, Poseidon and Hades eclipsed in the hearts of Wanderhavenites by Apollo, the sun god, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, whose portfolio inspired the change that was the only constant in this city by the sea.
Eventually, the Old Church above the town fell into disuse and disrepair, all but forgotten by the teaming masses of the city far below.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Elaina said.
Her foot slipped on the path up the cliff-side, and she nearly went down, but Sneax was watching closely, even in the dark, and she was able to steady her friend before Elaina fell.
“Don't be an old maid,” Sneax said. “You wanted adventure. This is an adventure.”
Truth be told, though, Sneax was more than a little worried. However, she knew better than to show that to the already nervous Elaina.
“This is not an adventure,” Elaina replied.  “This is insanity. It's as black as pitch out here, and we're rock climbing. Sneax, there's a reason why this place is called the 'old' church. It's so far out of town that no one comes up here anymore.”
Despite herself, Sneax smiled at that. “No one but smugglers and thieves,” she said. “The darkness hides their evil deeds.”
At that point, Sneax reached the top of the cliff. She turned to help her friend and breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“I'm serious!” Elaina said. Her voice echoed in the darkness. “Russitan Lassiter could slit our throats out here, and we’d be a week before anyone found the bodies. And if that's not enough, the caves around here are supposed to lead to goblin-tunnels and worse!” When Elaina was finally up and standing next to Sneax, Sneax could see the fear in her friend's eyes even in the light of the barely-risen half-moon. “This is a bad idea, Sneax. We shouldn't be here.”
“And we wouldn't be. Not if there was any choice.”
For a moment, Sneax felt bad for bringing Elaina into this, but in her heart of hearts, she was also grateful for her friend's presence. Truth was, Sneax wasn't sure if she could have faced Lassiter alone in a place like this. A girl like Sneax didn't have many friends, but Elaina had been there for her before—and would be again if Sneax had anything to say about it.
“Come on,” Sneax said. “The Old Church is just a little ways up from here.”
Compared to the climb up the cliff, the rest of the trip was easy. Ordinarily, an apprentice mage like Elaina might've summoned magic to light the way, but it went without saying that Lassiter had picked the Old Church as his meeting place because he didn't want his business attracting attention. So Sneax led the way from the cliff, holding Elaina's hand to keep her from stumbling—or from making too much noise. Soon enough the rocky path up from the cliff gave way to larger stones—stones too large to have come from nature.  In the dark, the ruins of the Old Church sprang up all around them.
At night, the place felt like a graveyard for giants. Massive time-weathered boulders grew out of the ground like broken tombstones, the detritus of centuries of worship and neglect. Sneax knew from prior visits that the roof that had once been atop the main sanctuary had long since caved in, but where in daylight it looked like little more than a collapsed stone pile, under the light of the low half-moon, the place became a mausoleum for things better forgotten. Though they were on level ground now, the footing was still tricky, and Sneax jumped when, behind her, Elaina went down in a rush of rustling skirts and outstretched hands.
Sneax's knife was out before she realized that her friend had merely stumbled. She started to put the knife back, but then a great shadow loomed up before her.
Laughter sounded in the darkness. “You better put that thing away before you hurt yourself, little girl.”
It was Lassiter. Behind him a half-dozen man-shaped shadows appeared out in the gloom. Sneax didn't know whether to be relieved or even more frightened.
“Whats'a'matter, Sneax,” Lassiter jibed, “You look terrified. What, you too scared to come here by yourself?  Relax. This job'll be easy.”
From a pocket, he pulled a small dimly glowing green stone. Then he turned and motioned to a couple of his men, and they stumbled forward, carrying what looked to be a heavy crate. They dropped the crate with a thump, and Lassiter leaned over, holding the stone close by the crate. Its magic didn't produce much light, but in the darkness, not much was needed.
“You know what this is?” Lassiter asked.
“I do,” Elaina answered. She sounded braver than Sneax felt, and her voice held a hint of challenge in it. “Where'd you get it?”
Lassiter leered, and in the darkness it was terrifying. “I could tell you, girl. But then I'd have to kill you.”
“Why?” Sneax asked, suddenly even more afraid than she'd been before. “What's that stuff do?”
“It has medicinal properties,” Elaina replied.  “And a few, uh, more unsavory applications. You can use it as a poison. But the monks at Blackwinter use it to help treat wounds.  That's how I know about it.”
“What it does ain't my concern,” Lassiter said, “and it ain't yours, neither. All's you need to know is that I got a buyer for this here merchandise, and we don't need to be disturbed while the deal goes down. So you two get up there in them rocks and act all sneaky like—“ he poked Sneax in the chest, “—and if anybody shows up, you sling up some kind'a warning or somethin', and if you can, you lead 'em off, so’s they don’t disturb us.”
“That sounds easy enough,” Sneax said. “What's the catch?”
Lassiter snarled and grabbed Sneax by the ear again. “Catch is, you better not screw this up, girl, or I cut off your ear just like we talked about. Now none of your sass. Come on, I want you to meet the buyer.  Then you can get up in them rocks and do like I told you.”  Lassiter turned to his bully boys.  “You lot stay here and protect the crate.  Don’t bring it over ‘til I whistle for it.”
Sneax swallowed hard, but she followed, and Elaina followed her.  Lassiter led them back into the gloom of the main ruins, through a virtual maze of fallen stone plinths and assorted bits of rubble.  Sneax was usually good with directions, but with the darkness this time, she quickly lost her way, and soon she wasn’t even sure which way was back towards town.
“You lost yet?” Lassiter asked.
“No,” Sneax lied.  “’Course not.”
It didn’t sound too convincing, even to Sneax, and Lassiter chuckled.  “Good.  Now when we get up here, you two be real polite-like.  Old Draks, he ain’t the friendliest sort.  Don’t tolerate no lip the way I do.  You two just keep your traps shut and let me do all the talkin’, hear me?”
Sneax nodded, but the gesture was lost in the darkness.  Beside her, though, Elaina spoke up.  “If all we are is look-outs, why do we even need to meet this guy, Russ?  I notice you didn’t bring the rest of your bullyboys.”
Lassiter whirled, and in the darkness his blade flashed.  “Curiosity killed the cat, little mageling.  Now I thought I told you to shut your trap. You goin’ do it, or do I need to cut you some to get your attention?”
Elaina’s eyes got big, and she took a step back.  Her mouth closed with an audible pop.
“That’s better,” Lassiter said.  He smiled again, and his dagger disappeared.  
Sneax let herself breath.  
“Now, as to that, when you meet old Draks, maybe you’ll understand.  I just want the man to know it’s all on the up-and-up, right?  I figure, I better get all the players out where he can see ‘em, that way we don’t have a misunderstandin’ later.  You know what I’m sayin’?”  Lassiter turned and started walking again.  “Well, you will when you meet the man.  You’ll see.”
On that, at least, Lassiter proved to be correct.
He led them out of the ruins and up to the edge of the cliffs on the opposite side of the Old Church from the town.  The night was still dark, but the moon had risen higher in the sky, and now that they were out away from the maze of ruins, Sneax could see a little more and begin to get her bearings.  Directly below her, the cliffs fell away into an infinity of inky blackness, but beyond that, she could see moonlight reflecting off the water of the Bregaen Sea.  Out in the distance, Wanderhaven’s lighthouse was lit, warning of the rocks that marked the southern edge of the city’s harbor.
A breeze blew in off the water, and for the first time in what seemed like a long time, Sneax began to think that they might survive.  Beside her, Lassiter looked around.  But whatever it was that he was looking for, Sneax could tell that he hadn’t seen it.
“Yo Draks!  You out there?”
A cool, almost melodic voice sounded in the darkness.  “I am here, Russitan Lassiter.”
Sneax whipped around, but there was nothing to see.  Then a figure emerged, and she could only stare in horror.  “Holy Apollo, God of Morning...” she muttered.  “Russ, that’s a fire elf!”
It was.  He was lithe and pale and smoothly graceful, and now that he’d allowed himself to be seen, his long red hair and finely woven clothes fairly sparkled in the darkness.  A wide-brimmed slouch hat with gold piping obscured the elf's face, but in any event, Sneax eyes were drawn to his hands—long fingered hands that rested coolly on the hilts of a pair of twinned longswords.  They hung dangerously from a low-slung belt around the elf's waist.  
Even in the darkness, Sneax could tell that the belt’s buckle was made of solid gold.
“I take it that these are your bodyguards?”  Draks said, nodding at Sneax and Elaina.  “Shall I call mine?
Draks didn’t wait for an answer.  “You know, you surprise me, Russitan.  I would have figured you for the kind of man who liked to keep a few hulking street brutes around.  But these are exquisite.  It's just... they look so young.”
“Th-they’re only the lookouts, Draks,” Lassiter replied.  But he sounded rattled, and somehow Sneax found herself even more unnerved than she was before.  “Just so’s you can see that we’re all on the up-and-up.”
“Even so,” Draks replied.  He trailed a finger across the hilt of one of his longswords. “Surely we are not in any danger here?”
“Nah,” Lassiter said, “There ain't nothin' to worry about.”  He tried to look nonchalant when he said it, but he couldn’t quite pull it off.  Then he turned and looked at Sneax.  “Well, go on you two.  Get to scoutin’.”
Sneax was only too happy to comply.
She led Elaina back into the ruins, but somehow, in light of their confrontation with Lassiter—and then with the fire elf, Draks—the Old Church didn't seem nearly as spooky as it had only a few minutes earlier. Where before the darkness had held mysteries that Sneax had been afraid to explore, now it was comforting.  It hid her and Elaina from the very real dangers that she now knew were out there—dangers like that fire elf and his twin swords.  Moreover, compared to the climb up the cliff from town, climbing up the side of the fallen roof of the Old Church was easy.  Soon enough, the girls found a good lookout spot and started settling in.
A few minutes passed without comment during which Sneax was pretty sure that Elaina was happy just to be alive.  Pretty soon, however, Sneax could feel Elaina's eyes on her.
“What?” she asked.
“You gonna tell me the deal here, or do I have to wait until Old Draks over there cuts out our hearts so he can serve us up the Fire God before I find out what’s going on?”
Sneax sighed. She did not want to get into this.
“Well?” Elaina asked.
Sneax couldn't meet her friend's eyes. “I owe Russ money—again. I owe him, like, a lot of money.  This job was in lieu of payment.”
“I figured it was something like that,” Elaina said. She shook her head, and even in the darkness, Sneax could see that her friend was disappointed. “Sneax, you know you shouldn't be involved with a guy like Russitan Lassiter. I mean, look at the kind of things he gets you into.”
“I know,” Sneax said. She felt sick.
“Well.  I guess it's too late now.  How much do you owe him, anyway?”
“A lot,” Sneax said. “Believe me, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have to.”  She could barely bring herself to admit the amount. “It's... it's five silvers.”
“Five silvers!” Elaina exclaimed. “Five?!”
Sneax nodded glumly. “And if I didn’t do this thing to knock it down a little, next week it would’a been a gold.”
“Goddess Athena, Sneax!” Elaina said. “We're doing all this because you owe five silvers! I have eight in my bag back at the Master Marconi's laboratory, and you know I would have given them to you. I mean... Five?  Why didn't you just ask me?”
“Keep your voice down, alright?” Sneax said. “Gods!  I don’t wanna take your money, Elaina.  That’s the last thing I want. You don't know what it's like on the streets.  I’ve got to learn to make it on my own.”
“But see, you aren’t alone, Sneax.  I’m right here with you.”
“I know.  And if I’d a’known it was gonna be like this—“
“Save it,” Elaina replied. “Besides, if I hadn’t come with you tonight, I’d have missed meeting that fire elf.  Do you know how rare they are?  So as far as I'm concerned, it was worth it just for that.  But Sneax, you can’t be living like this.  Someday you’re gonna get yourself—“
Sneax didn’t hear the rest because she clapped her hand over Elaina’s mouth.  “Be quiet!  Do you see that?!”

Monday, January 21, 2013

Triathlon Diary: 1/14 to 1/20

The big news this week was, of course, that I got the flu.  I came down with it Saturday after Tri Practice last weekend, and I was in bed from the time that I got home until sometime Tuesday afternoon.  I went to work on Wednesday, but in retrospect, that was a day too early, and it was Friday before I really started to feel like myself again.

I swam twice this week: once on Friday night and once of Sunday afternoon.  Friday my goal was just to get into the water and see how my body would respond to a little light exercise.  Sunday was a more active effort, and I put a lot more of myself into that workout.  It went like this:
 - 5 x 100 @ 1:40 warm-up (aerobic pace)
 -- 1 minute rest --
 - 5 x 100 @ 1:30 (Temp; holding 1:15)
 - 6 x 50 kick @ 1:00 (2 x fly / breast / free)
 - 100 drill (catch-up / fingertip drag)
 - 6 x 100 pull @ 1:30
 - 100 cool down

Don't get me wrong; I still feel like I have a lot of work to do to get to where I want to be as a swimmer.  But this was a decent workout, and I felt like I was able to lay down a decent effort and not crush myself.  That's progress.

Swim Total: 2 x swim workouts (1500, 2100); 3600 yards total (36 pts)

I probably could have ridden to work on Friday, but the high temperature that day was supposed to be something like 28-degrees, and I didn't think riding in that was a smart idea.  So no bike mileage this weekend.

We met as normal Friday morning, and I ran with my Club, but again--easy.  I didn't take exact measurements or anything, but it worked out to be almost exactly 40-minutes.  Call it 4.25 miles.

Unfortunately, I was dead on my feet after that.

Run Total: 1 x run (4.25-miles); 4.25 miles total (17 pts)

Total Points for the Week: 53 pts

Final Thoughts
It's a cardinal sin in triathlon to spend too much time working on your best thing.  That said, there are two occasions when I tend to break that rule--first, when I'm coming off an illness or injury, and second, when it's freezing cold outside and working the other disciplines is either a total drag or impractical because of weather conditions.  I had both this week and will probably continue through at least mid-March, so I suppose I've got some swimming in my immediate future.

The other thing on my mind is wondering how much of an impact this week will have on my long term training plan.  As I've mentioned before, I work on a four-week cycle--three working weeks followed by a rest week.  This was supposed to be a Week 2, but with my being sick, it wasn't much of a work week.  That's fine, but I hesitate to call it a rest week, either, and so while I'm tempted to call next week a regular Week 1 and just reset the cycle, I've also got to make sure to monitor my workload and schedule another rest week sooner than I normally would if that becomes necessary.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Comics: Bronx Angel--Politics By Another Method (Page 13)

Bronx Angel: Politics By Another Method.  Page 13.
Click here to see this page at full size.
And now we're into background.  

My rule of thumb is that background should be now more than 20% of your story.    Here, I think we've got all of one page in the first twenty-two, so that's good.  Plus, given that we've already met Angel's parents, I thought it was necessary to explain how he managed to wind up in a gang rather than at Harvard or something.  

Truth is, a good kid from a decent family in the Bronx has plenty of opportunities--even in the south Bronx.  The problem tends to be not that the opportunities aren't there but rather that the kids' homelives and family structures are often incredibly chaotic, making any kind of academic and/or traditional success difficult, especially in the kids' formative years.  And once the kids fall behind, get the idea that school's not for them, or basically just give up on making it in any sort of traditional way, it becomes problematic--to say the least--to get them to start thinking in terms of reintegrating into mainstream society.  It just doesn't seem like it's their deal.  And soon more chaos ensues.  

That was Sally's experience teaching in the south Bronx, anyway.  

Speaking personally, I only worked in the Bronx for a few years, and I liked it mainly because you saw the whole spectrum of human society right there in that one place.  Yeah, there were parts of the Bronx where folks just hung out on the stoop and watched the world go by, where the best thing that happened was not getting busted by the cops.  But truthfully, that was just a few neighborhoods, and they were isolated.  I saw a lot, LOT more places where there were folks struggling but holding together, doing their thing, and working.  Hustling.  I saw a lot of places that could have been Angel's family's place, the infamous "South Bronx Diner", and ultimately it was those folks and those places that inspired me the most.  Plus, they always had the best coffee.

In any event, Angel doesn't fit the kind of gangland loser paradigm very well, which is why I wanted to kind of explain away his former life.  But maybe that's part of the point of the story.  Angel has a family and Spice doesn't.  Maybe that's all that's different, that one simple act of fate.  Who knows?

Art wise, my favorite part about this section is the way Randy drew Darlene.  She's not too pretty, y'know?  Not somebody with a lot going on in her own life before she met Angel.  Not too  many of her own prospects.  Who else is gonna follow her boyfriend to the south Bronx?  Anyway, I thought Randy captured that very well with her hair because of the way it looks so thin and stringy and with her clothes because they fit her like sackcloth.  No one in comics ever understates a character like that, and believe me, it did not happen by accident.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Friday Mad Science: All Science Edition

“Another toy / to help destroy / the Elder Race of Man,
forget about your silly whim / it doesn’t fit the plan.” 
- Rush, 2112
Coming off the flu, I’ve been in a very, “go along to get along” kind of mood.  I was sick, and since then I’ve just sort of wanted to survive until I felt better.  
But then I had a “West Point” dream last night, and now, well, all bets are off.  
A “West Point” dream is a dream like the kind where you dream that you’re the only one in the office who’s naked, except it’s set back at the Academy and is about something ten times more ridiculous than mere clothes.  Anyway, the one last night was even more ridiculous than that, and now I’m ready to straight up Fight The Power.
Alright, so there was this guy named Bob, and he had a job as a computer programmer working in LA.  And what Bob did was this--he outsourced his own job.  He hired a computer programmer from China to basically do what he himself was supposed to do, allowing Bob to then spend his days onFacebook and watching cat videos of YouTube.  
Bob was, of course, considered to be the best programmer in his department.  I imagine that it wasn’t even close.
The weird thing about this, to me, is that Bob still came into the office every day.  But he did.  He came in day-in and day-out and just... wasted his time.  All day, every day.  
His sub-contractor, meanwhile, did Bob’s work remotely by logging into the company’s secure server from China, which is how they wound up catching Bob.  The company thought it was getting hacked by the Chinese government, figuring that Bob’s credentials had been compromised somehow since Bob himself was such a model worker.
Needless to say, Bob was fired recently.  No word yet on whether or not his Chinese counterpart has continued to do his job.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is like a tent for space, and NASA is testing it now as a way to cheaply and easily expand theInternational Space Station (ISS).  Essentially, you can just stuff this giant sack into a tight cylinder, shoot it up there, and then blow it up, and voila!  There’s your newest room in the ISS.
Cool idea, right?  I’d love to know what the module’s skin is made out of, but it must be pretty damned thick, right?  I also wonder if you have to take plates or something like that to line the outside of this thing once it’s inflated.  You know, to protect from radiation and whatnot.  
I’m also wondering whether or not Bigelow Aerospace is at all related to the Bigelow Tea Company.  The Bigelow Tea Company is headquartered right here in Farifield, Connecticut.
Anyway, I was reading yesterday that Bigelow is hoping to use its tech to create commercially viable civilian space habitats for tourism and extra-national (i.e. non-US) space exploration, with an apparent price of something like $25 million per astronaut for a 60-day space mission.  
It’ll be really interesting to see how that all plays out.  And whether or not they eventually decide to drop a few of these things on the Moon.
While we’re talking about weird new tech things, Lenovo has a new Chromebook out, the Thinkpad X131e Chromebook--not to be confused with the regular Thinkpad X131e, which is a Windows machine--that the company intends as "a rugged design for the classroom environment."  Supposedly, the Chromebook design has the same general specs as the Windows design, but it runs the Chrome OS and prices out at $429.

The Lenovo X131e Chromebook
I’ll admit that I’m a little curious to know what purpose the bigger processor and hard drive have in a Chromebook, but it’s hard to see why you’d want to pay $200 more for a Chromebook than you really have to, especially for classrooms.  I mean, yeah, mine is no Toughbook, but then again, the thing weighs all of two-pounds, and I bought it first and foremost because it was light.  And yeah, I grant that you wouldn’t necessarily want that in a classroom environment, but I still can’t believe that just the extra plastic and shock absorption in this new version are worth more than, say, an extra fifty bucks.  

In any event, my Chromebook works great, but as I’ve written, it’s functionality is strictly limited, and I don’t see how you’d change that in a machine that can’t install software, regardless of what hard drive and processor come equiped on the machine.  I mean, it doesn’t take a mainframe to runGoogle Drive and surf the Internet--that was the whole point of the exercise.

If you’re wondering, I finally, finally started feeling like myself yesterday afternoon.  And yeah, it looks like I really did have the flu.  I mean, I didn’t get tested or anything, but it certainly seems like I had all the symptoms, and God knows that it’s going around up here right now.  Still, I probably didn’t suffer as badly as I could have because I’m in decent physical shape, and I’ve bounced back pretty quickly, so I suppose I have little to complain about.  
Still, being sick sucked a lot, and trust me, watching a Star Trek movie marathon while you’e got a fever is not recommended for your long-term mental health.  The dreams you have...  

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got this week.  
We’re gonna try Tri Practice again tomorrow, hopefully with 100% fewer casualties this time.  But we’ll be running, so wish me luck.

Also: I took the Ravens (+8.5) and the Falcons (+4) this weekend, both opposite of the other guys in the office, giving me a chance to catch up.  So you can wish me luck with that as well.

Have a great weekend!