Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas is over, Charlie Brown

It ended today, around 2:00 pm, amidst a game of Yu-Gi-Oh. Attitudes manifested and words were exchanged. By the end of the scene, one son was in his room, grounded for the rest of the day and the other was sitting on the couch in tears, upset by the way his younger brother had treated him out of frustration.

My wonderful wife, who did NOT lose her temper during the episode, began to debrief with the older (11 years old) sibling. They discussed how the younger brother (10 years old) sometimes had problems treating others with respect and ran his mouth without the benefit of a Common Sense Filter. That dear friends is life with ADD, and I assure it that it is harder on the boy than it is on us, because we believe in consequences.

Anyway, my wife became concerned and brought the conversation to my attention because the older son was describing, in detail, how to go about disposing of the body. His younger brother's body. She became a bit alarmed, but I reassured her that all young boys & men considered thoughts of this sort, especially if they were the type NOT to assault their fellow human beings in idle retaliation. And that the subset of those young boys & men who grew up to become serial killers was quite small indeed. Now please leave me be so that I can return to watching my Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Saw marathon.

Actually, I was watching a documentary called Big Rig, about the life and culture of the American truck driver. It was quite accurate and well done, although all of the subjects in the movie were quite upset with the government and their taxes, fees, and fuel prices. The film was made in 2007, during the height of our country's unreasonable fuel prices. Great documentary, I highly recommend it. It brought back many sights, smells, and experiences of my childhood. I practically grew up in cab of an 18-wheeler.

Several hours later, I am happy to report that the younger sibling is still alive, albeit subdued after a long nap. The older sibling has for the most part moved on after the dispute.
Now reading: Pax Romana by Jonathan Hickman

Monday, December 13, 2010

Game review: Family Business

Family Business is a fun mobster card game. Each player has a mob "family," which are card sets made up of real-life gangsters and robbers. The idea is to keep as many of your gangsters alive as possible, while trying to kill the gangsters belonging to the other players.

Meanwhile, everyone is playing action cards to 'finger' other players' gangsters (pointing them out to the authorities), trying to kill those who have been fingered, and trying to rescue their own gangsters from the line up.

As gangsters are fingered, their cards are played in a line up in the center of the table. Eventually, due to card play or after a certain number of gangsters are placed in the line up, they start getting killed (and removed from play), at a rate of one per turn. Since the execution happens at the front of the line, a gangster's position in the line is important.

We found this game to be very intense and game play became almost cutthroat as players tried to gun down opponents' gangsters while keeping their own gang out of the line up. I suggest this game as a good way of channeling the competitive players in your group. I enjoyed this game a lot, but it took a little while to learn. Meaning just a few minutes. I suggest playing a practice game just to get familiar with the different cards and eb and flow of game play.

Now drinking: Saranac's winter sampler, where I'm reminded again that Saranac makes a bitter stout. The copper ale is good, but the rest of the box is mediocre.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

On Geckos and Persuasive Maneuvers

GeckoTime.com has great info & photos.
As my wife and youngest son were leaving school the other day, they ran into another teacher and her pet albino gecko. No, I don't know the circumstances, maybe the teacher was taking the gecko for a walk. She took the time to let my son pet the beast, and told him a few things about taking care of geckos.

"His skin feels like chicken flesh. Is he cold?" No, that's just his skin. 

She told them that she also has another gecko, but left him in the tank because "he's the mean one." It hisses at people and doesn't like to be touched. The teacher went on to explain how it once lost a fight with a dog and was still angry about having to regrow a leg and part of its tail. I'm guessing that it probably started the fight. 

Naturally, when they came home and told my other son and me about this awesome gecko, the conversation quickly got out of hand. The boys lined up and faced off against us on the scrimmage line, in a verbal game of football. The potential gecko was the figurative ball that they attempted to move down the field to the goal line of our home. They began their drive with a listing of those attributes that make geckos great pets:

They're cute. Five yard gain.
They're friendly. Incomplete pass.
They're quiet. First down.
They're easy to care for. Gain a few more yards.
They eat crickets. Interception.

Penalty called: 15 yards, offense, crickets on the field. Replay the down.

My wife doesn't get along with crickets. She had a frightening encounter with a swarm of crickets invading her yoga class in college. As she lay on the floor, her consciousness floating in the aether of peace and harmony, a cricket jumped on her face, like a face-hugger attempting to implant its egg in her stomach. To this day when she encounters a cricket, she jumps higher than it does.

In a last-ditch effort to reach the goal, the youngest rushes up the middle. "You know mom, if we got a gecko, you'd only have to take care of four pets." And he doesn't even make it back to the line of scrimmage.

"Wait a minute. WHO would be taking care of them?" Incomplete pass. "And what do you mean FOUR pets??" The defense mounts a strong line.

"Well," The center snaps the ball to the quarterback. "Yes...there's the dog, the gerbil, the gecko, and the crickets." Fumble.

But wait, the ball is recovered by the offensive team as the other son jumps in for a save. "Yeah mom. And you know what? Tarantulas eat crickets too!" And that's a sack. In their own end zone.And the ball explodes on impact.


Here's to hoping Santa doesn't show up with a box of crickets at YOUR house. He's certainly not allowed to bring any here.


Now reading: Jim Butcher's new book of short stories, Side Jobs.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New Avengers Animated Show

Of all the other things I have to blog about, this one jumps to the front of the line. I'm sitting here eagerly awaiting the premiere of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes on Disney XD. Forget No Ordinary Family, this series is the real deal. avngrserthsmtsthrspic.jpg image by webheadder


I got a sneak peak at the series this week when the network showed the 5-6 minute mini-episodes that serve as backstory to the real series. They serve to introduce the characters and set up the major plots for the show. And it's looking good. If you don't get Disney XD, the mini-episodes are all viewable on the show's website. Hopefully the full-length 30-minute episodes will be posted there too.

The show, so far, seems to be grounded in Silver Age Avengers storylines (Hydra is the primary criminal presence) tempered with modern influences, namely the Iron Man movies and a touch of Ultimates flavor. The characters are properly represented and characterized, and there are cameos aplenty, especially of villains.

The series is helmed by Jeph Loeb, so everything should be fine. We're in good hands with someone who knows the source material and understands superhero stories. And here, he won't be hampered by having to reach mass market audiences, the way he was with Heroes. This is pure comic book TV.

My favorite Avengers are present, namely Hank Pym and Hawkeye. Hank begins the show as Ant-Man, but I've already seen clips of him moving on to Giant Man. Hopefully they'll handle his characterization well and we'll see him quickly progress all the way to Yellowjacket and his mental breakdown.

The Avengers have always been my favorite comic book characters and super team, even years before Kurt Busiek and George Perez breathed new life into the book on their run (and as far as I'm concerned, the book ended when they left it). I really like what I've seen of this TV show so far. I can handle the modernizations they've done in the name of making the show connect more to the new live action movies and making characters a little less campy (ie, this version of the Grim Reaper is much less dorky, and Nick Fury is a black man like in his other modern incarnations). All that stuff is fine. The only negative comment I have is what they've done to Wasp. She looks a bit goofy.


Now reading: Revisiting the good stuff from Weis & Hickman - Dragons of Winter Night

Monday, September 27, 2010

Game review: The Great Dalmuti

Thanks to a friend, my family and I got to check out some new games back in the spring, and I just found the notes I made after playing them.

The Great Dalmutti is a card game about being the ruling power of the kingdom, which in this case the group of players.

Each seat at the table - not player, mind you, but physical seat - represents a player's level in the nobility. There can be up to eight players, but only four of the seats matter: the Greater Dalmuti (the boss of all), the Lesser Dalmuti (boss of most), the Lesser Peon, and the Greater Peon (the lowest rank). Game play is easy and fast. This is a game that anyone can play, even your in-laws.

Play starts with the Greater Dalmuti playing one or cards to the table in front of him. Going around the table, each player must either play the same number of cards of higher rank or pass. The round ends when everyone has passed. The last player to play cards starts the next round.

Play continues until someone runs out of cards. That player wins the round and becomes the Greater Dalmuti. Other players total the numbers on the cards remaining in their hands. Once the scores are totaled, players change seats according to their scores, lowest (the Greater Dalmuti) to highest, who is now the Greater Peon. An optional rule suggests assigning funny hats to each rank; we had fun with that too, fighting over certain hats just as much as we fought for the title of GD. Scores are summed over a number of rounds of play. Lowest total wins the game.

We had a lot of fun with this game. Its fast pace and constant change of seats made for high-energy play. Once we get our own copy, we'll devise some drinking rules. Out of curiosity, I Googled the notion and found this list of favorite drinking games on BoardGameGeek. The entry for The Great Dalmuti is kinda lame, so there's room for improvement there. I like the rules for RoboRally.

Game review 2010.01

Now reading: A book about a witch by Kim Harrison.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Abraham Lincoln: Vamire Hunter

Book review: 2010.13

Author: Seth Grahame-Smith

It's finally happened. I'm reporting on a book that I didn't like. I picked up this one for two reasons: I like Abraham Lincoln, and I really liked G-S's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That book is responsible for creating a whole new niche of horror fiction. Most of which is completely unimaginative and likely deplorable. I say that in a most uneducated fashion. I haven't read anything else in this niche besides these two. It's a kitzchy fad that hopefully will pass soon. Having proclaimed that, I need to read a few more works in this revisionist subgenre by other authors. There are sure to be some gems out there.

Anyway, the one thing I really didn't like about P&P&Z was the writing style. But, since I read the source material simultatneously, I could see that he was mimicking Jane Austen's style, which was appropriate for that book. Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith was channeling Austen again for this book. It is written in that same plodding, overly introspective narrative style. That might have been appropriate for a period work about a teenaged girl, but it just made this story languish.

Secondly, where this story could've portrayed Abe in a larger-than-life, even-more-heroic fashion, it instead reduces him to being a victim of his lot in life. It makes out Abe Lincoln to be nothing more than a reactive person whose every decision was done as a reaction to his fear of and desire for vengeance against vampires.

The one thing I did like was the author's take on vampires. His interpretation of the lore was modern and interesting. In some ways, it was similar to Anne Rice's vampires. Hmm. For that matter, he also used a similar story framing technique as she did in Interview with the Vampire.

In summation, I was bored all the way through this book. I kept waiting for the exposition to end and the real story to begin, but it never did. It was exposition all the way through. I think the story downplayed the protagonist's potentially heroic nature, and the writing style wasn't appropriate for the era. Edgar Allan Poe makes a guest appearance; it would've been more appropriate to write this in his style. Maybe this style is the author's true form; other than these two books, I haven't read any of his other works.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Of smoke and memories

Tomorrow I bury my mother.

I don't share much about myself, you've likely noticed that. I"m a private person and what I feel is my own. Yet, sometimes I need to express. Less than two months ago, my mother was diagnosed with inoperable brain tumors. Radiation treatments reduced her pain and other symptoms, but couldn't halt the inevitable, especially at such a terminal stage. Last week, after her final round of treatments, she went to sleep and a few days later, didn't wake up.

I wasn't close to my mother. We'd come to terms over the years and gone our separate ways. We each had our own paths to follow, and more than anyone else, I think she understood that. We understood each other.

My mother, like hers before, was of Native descent. My grandmother was the quintessential squaw: small yet authoritative. During the year that we lived with her, she taught me to listen to the water and the wind and the trees. She also taught me how to sew and quilt. Who knew the relevance that appreciation would have in my later life. My grandfather, by all accounts, was a tall, lanky, whiskey-drinking Indian. I never knew him, but attended his funeral as a young boy.

My mother was dealt a tough hand in life and did her best to live it. I think, especially in her later years, she did well. Despite her temperament. She did her best as a single mother of two. And when that didn't work, she did her best to carry on without her children, which must have been the worst of all the dark cards she was dealt.

The week before she died, we went to see her. It was only the fourth time we'd seen each other since I got married. I think she never forgave me for that, getting married I mean. It had nothing to do with my wife (despite the amount of Texas in her). The week after my wedding, she called to let me know I'd always have a room at her house in case, you know, it didn't work out. And that ...supportive... attitude never changed. Even fifteen years later.

What matters to me is that she got to see her grandsons one more time. She got to see how they have already overcome so much of their own adversities and are growing into wonderful, bright, and independent boys. She got to see her bloodline blossoming, and I hope it served to help put her at peace.

She had one rule: you never say goodbye. It was a Cherokee custom. You only say goodbye to someone once. Otherwise, it's just a temporary parting. It's one of the few constants I remember about her.

I know that my mother went forth into the next life at peace and on her own terms. She certainly deserved that much.

Goodbye Mother. I'll listen for you on the wind and send you occasional tendrils of smoke from my campfire.

Boneshaker

Book review: 2010.12

Author: Cherie Priest

I bought Boneshaker, plain and simply, because I wanted to read a steampunk novel. As steampunk, Boneshaker satisfies. There are goggles, in this case, full-on gas masks, airships, and steam-powered air generators. And it takes place around the turn of the century. So steampunk requirements satisfied.

I'd also categorize the book's setting as dystopian. It's dark, grimy, and a bit depressing. I tend to envision my steampunk as more fun, frolicky, and, well, quaint. Wild, Wild West; Girl Genius; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

This book is more akin to Brave New World or Make Room! Make Room! (that's the Harry Harrison novel that the movie Soylent Green was based on - if you can read it and NOT attempt suicide, then you're doing something right). Or Romero's Dawn of the Dead. It's a bit depressing.

But that's just the setting. The story takes place in a post-Civil War era Seattle. It's a dark and dismal setting that brings forth connotations of real-world coal mining country and stories like that of Matewan, West Virginia. It's grimy, and in more ways than one.

The story at its base is a mother-son redemption story. Not just redemption of their relationship, but also of their identities. The mother is the central character and, while at first seeming like the stereotypical failure as a single parent, she is quickly driven to levels of badassery as she forays into the wasteland to rescue her wayward teenage son.

Mother and son both suffer from a tainted past, borne on the coattails of the long lost husband/father. One of the central plot points revolves around his past actions and apparent demise. Heck, the current and future state of the world is a direct result of his past actions. Did I mention the zombies? The wayward teenage son sets out to determine the truth about his father. Meanwhile, the mother takes on the mantle of her father and tries to rescue the son.

This book is a great read - I read it over the course of about four days. For me, that's the equivalent of other people saying they read the latest Harry Potter book over the weekend. I read slowly and I'm a critical reader, very conscious of style and word choice, which means I read slower still. This book held my attention as Priest immersed me in her world of steam and toxic gas. I loved every minute of it.

If my praise leaves you unsure, then consider that both Warren Ellis and Cory Doctorow liked it. But then, that might not mean much to you either. In that case, go read whatever the hell everyone else is reading. I'm just trying to show you something different.

The author has a follow-up book, Dreadnought, coming out soon. It's not a sequel, but it's set in the same world. For that reason alone, I'll be reading it too.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Countdown to Armageddon

Book review 2010.11

Author: Edward M. Lerner

Countdown to Armageddon is the front half of a new flip-book by Edward M. Lerner. The other half of the book is a collection of short stories called A Stranger in Paradise.

Countdown to Armageddon is a short novel about time travel, terrorists, spies, and love. Time travel is a topic that I hate because it's rarely done well and often creates more plot holes than it fixes. But in the hands of an accomplished sci-fi author like Lerner, it's put to good use.

I really like his philosophy of time as a linear stream with a fixed rate of speed, and his stance (in this story) that time travel cannot create divergent realities. The main character refers to that popular notion as preposterous because of the immense amount of energy that would be needed to create those realities. So Lerner very clearly sets up the premise that there's only one reality and it's very difficult to alter it. That means we're playing for keeps; no temporal take-backs. (Sort of. Time travel never plays by the rules.)

The crux of the story is about two men who take a one-way journey back through time chasing a terrorist who is armed with an atomic bomb, and who intends to change history by having the Moslems defeat the Christians back in the day. The main character, Harry, is a historian and armchair physicist. Both of these areas of expertise come into play when he is approached by Terrance, a former Interpol agent, now fellow historian, to track down the villain.

This book is also part love story. Harry's chief motivation for saving the world is his love for his wife, Julia. Sounds sappy, I know, but Harry and Julia are a great quirky couple and we get to see glimpses of their relationship and love.

Now, one thing I liked about this story is that it capitalized on an era of time that I (and likely most readers) know very little about. Taking place in the 8th century, ancient Europe is just starting to settle into its modern geo-political structure.

Because of my lack of familiarity with them, it was sometimes hard for me to keep the political groups straight. Lerner keeps the story moving at a steady pace and never falls into the trap of diverging into an extended history lesson. Just like with the main love story, Lerner only gives us what the story needs to keep moving forward.

There was only one scene in the book that I thought was unnecessary: a very short scene early in the story when Julia is having lunch with her sister. The scene is there to affirm that Julia really does love Harry and to broaden her characterization, but it's unnecessary because Lerner does a great job characterizing their relationship all through the story. She's awesome and easily worth the risk of Harry's life and future. Ah, there's that time travel thing again.

On to the other half of the book. A Stranger in Paradise is a small collection of short stories where we can see the breadth of Lerner's writing style. These stories were varied in theme and setting, and I enjoyed them all.

Overall, I liked this book a lot. I found it to be fresh and interesting, and the format allowed me to read more deeply of an author I'd never read before. I'll be looking into some of Lerner's other works. And I'd really love to see more of Harry Bowen!

More books on the way

Before anyone gives me flack, yes, I know I'm behind on my book reviews. I'll try to catch up on them soon. The good news is that I actually have been reading. I just haven't been posting. Additionally, thanks to a friend, the family and I had the opportunity to try out a few fun games, so I want to post about them too.

In lieu of actual reviews, here's a list of what I've read over the last few months, many of which I do want to write reviews for. Let me know if there are any that you're interested in hearing about.

Books:
Countdown to Armageddon / A Stranger in Paradise by Edward M. Lerner
A Dance with Demons by Jeff Offringa
Something from the Nightside by Simon R. Green
Nocturnal by Scott Sigler
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (and she just released another book in the same setting)
Blood Rites and Death Masks by Jim Butcher
Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb
Beneath by Jeremy Robinson
Brave Men Run by Matthew Wayne Selznick
The Secret World Chronicle, Books 1 & 2 by Mercedes Lackey & Steve Libbey
Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty
How to Succeed in Evil: The Novel by Patrick McLean
New World Orders by Edward G. Talbot

Comics:
Sword by the Luna Brothers
Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris
Chew by John Layman & Rob Guillory
Astro City: Dark Age by Kurt Busiek & Brent Anderson

Now listening to: The Bear Swarm! podcast 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Board games...on the Interwebs

I like telling you about things that I find to be cool. You know that. But I'm telling you up front that this post is going to sound like a paid advertisement. It's not. I just sincerely like this website and encourage everyone to check it out.

I'm talking about Gametable Online. It's a community for lovers of strategy games. They've recreated impressive online versions of many of the best board and card games. You can play against other people or just the computer. They also host tournaments on a regular basis, and offer other fun incentives to encourage player participation.

I have to give them a shout out because I've had fun playing there a LOT in the past (haven't logged in recently, I'm afraid). I've discovered some new games and good people to play them with.

There are a lot of games that you can play for free, but many of the ones I like are 'premium' games that require you to purchase access to the game on their site. That's a small, one-time fee for the ability to play that particular game whenever you want.

Some of my favorite premium games are RoboRally, Nuclear War, and Guillotine. Yes, these are all games that I actually own, but I don't always have the opportunity to play them in real life. Like with so many other things on the Internet, GTO is a perfect stand-in for hanging out with real people.

If you're not interested in paying to play online games, then at least swing by to play some of the free games. They have standards like chess, backgammon, and checkers, but also more interesting games like Battle of the Bands, Kill Dr. Lucky, and Cosmic Wimpout. They even have Axis & Allies for you hardcore wargamers. Check out the games, the thorough instructions, and the in-game and out-of-game chat features.

So that's my two bits for what I think is one of the best online gaming resources out there. I really want to see it continue to be a successful website because I love playing there, and I do what I can to support websites that I like. Check it out, and let me know if you do...I'm game!

Now reading: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (continuing to work my way through the Dresden Files a second time.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thought for the day

The e-road to Hell is paved with forgotten passwords.

Now reading: The new Icons RPG

Monday, July 12, 2010

On Twinkies and Stupidity

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm stewing over something that happened a while back.

First a preface. My sons both have severe food allergies and are on a glueten-free and dairy-free diet. That means they can't have anything that contains wheat, barley, oats or dairy.

My oldest son was in a sixth-grade advanced English class last year, and one of the teacher's class projects was that the students would make homemade snack cakes. It was part of some lesson on history. No problem, except that the students were then supposed to eat the snack cakes. Well, the teacher was at least smart enough to realize that my son would not be able to eat the treats.

What does she do in this situation? Does she call or email us to let us know like all their other teachers do? If she had, we could've sent in something for him to eat with his class. Even letting us know the night before is okay, we're used to it.

Not this teacher. This teacher-of-the-smart-kids took things into her own hands. Knowing that my son couldn't eat the wheat- and dairy-based food made in class, and in an attempt to go the extra mile...she bought him a box of Little Debbie Snack Cakes. Sigh. So not only could he not partake of the special class treat, but her attempt to give him something special just fell on him as a double whammy. And he had to smile and thank her for a DIFFERENT snack that he can't eat.

How did he handle it? He brought the box of cakes home and told my wife that he wanted to give them to me for Father's Day. Because he didn't want them to go to waste. Sniff sniff. He's a trooper.

Now reading: I just finished Astro City: Dark Ages.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bad movies and boxer shorts

Father's Day, and I'm truly touched. My family loves and appreciates me, of that there is no doubt. How did they choose to show that this year? Well, my wife asked me what I'd like, and I replied that I wanted some new boxer shorts. Please excuse my vulgarity, but that was my answer. That, and I also let her know that I would be ordering a new roleplaying game in the coming days (see below).

From my sons, I received the following:
  • the second expansion to Munchkin Cthulhu
  • Little Debbie's version of Twinkies
  • two decks of Yu-Gi-Oh cards
  • two really awesome greeting cards about farts
Now, the details:
  1. Munchkin Cthulhu 3: Unspeakable Vaults - This purchase means that there are only three fragments of the Munchkin franchise that we do not own: Munchkin 6: Demented Dungeons, Munchkin 7: More Good Cards and the one my wife & I really want, The Good, The Bad, and the Munchkin (western themed game). We are marketable that way. Hmm. I never noticed the similarity of "marketable" and "mark" before. We even have the new 'boosters' "Fairy Dust" and "Waiting for Santa", although the boys don't know it yet!
  2. Little Debbie snack cakes - This was a very thoughtful gift from my oldest, but the story behind it pisses me off; see my supplemental post on the subject.
  3. Yu-Gi-Oh - My sons each selected a pre-built YuGiOh Structure Deck for me from their vast collections. This way, I have two decks with which to practice my combat gaming. I'm up against two experts here, so this gift is a very gracious gesture on their parts. They want to make it easy for me to join in their hobby; I love it.

For me, Father's Day wouldn't be complete without a couple of bad horror movies. I treated myself to the newest episodes of Doctor Who, which, this season, is falling deeply into the abyss of suck. I also took in the scifi time warp movie Triangle. It was better than I expected, once you accept the fact that it's about a temporal anomaly, and therefore not likely to stand up to plot scrutiny. I also watched American Psycho 2, but I really don't want to talk about it.

My other Father's Day pursuit is the new RPG, Icons, by Steve Kenson, published by Adamant Entertainment. Kenson created this game to fill a void in the current array of superhero roleplaying games. While there are several great game systems out there for supers roleplaying (namely, Mutants & Masterminds), there weren't any games out there to address the need for "pick up" gaming - being able to roll in with friends and spontaneously play a superhero RPG.

Icons fixes this. Steve Kenson based this game on elements that he liked from all the various older games from the 80's and 90's. The thing I like best are random character generation and roleplaying Aspects (taken from the FATE system). I'll probably wax more poetically on this in the future, after I have a hard copy of the new game.

Now reading & drinking: Bimbos of the Death Sun and Legend Brewery's Brown Ale

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Oh Nikola Tesla, where have you gone?

Nikola Tesla was the greatest mind America has ever seen. It's a fact! Directly because of him, we have cheap and efficient electricity in our homes, we have broadcast radio, and we could’ve had particle beam weapons if only the military would’ve taken on his contract.

One of the coolest things he invented was broadcast power. He built a transmitter (look up Wardenclyffe Tower) in New York that could’ve powered the entire city easily. But then his earlier patents expired, reducing his royalties and thus his primary source of funding for the project. And once they realized that broadcast power meant *free* power, his other backers dropped out.

What I’m saying is that in 1900, Nikola Tesla almost gave us broadcast power, and broadcast wireless telecommunications. If Tesla had the support he needed, we could've had widespread 3G phone coverage, Wifi everywhere, and wireless power in place everywhere by 1950. Now, sure, the consumer technology wouldn't have been ready by then, but that infrastructure would have spurred on its development.

Which means we also would surely have jetpacks by now.

Coincidentally, after his death, the US military seized all of Tesla’s research notes and laboratories. And no doubt locked them away in a secure facility guarded by “Top Men.”

So that’s why we don’t have jetpacks and lightsabers. That’s why we’re only now getting handheld computers and smartphones. And that’s why I have to drag that danged power cord from room to room with my laptop, causing me to repeatedly trip over it, snag it on furniture, and nearly drop my beloved computer. And THAT’s why my ankle hurts.

Now drinking: Pyramid's Audacious apricot ale (theirs are good summer beers) while listening to Rob Zombie's Educated Horses 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Goblin Quest

Book review 2010.10

Author: Jim C. Hines

Goblin Quest came to me as a recommendation from someone on an e-mail group. I don't often read the fantasy genre because it seems that the standard tropes are hard to break away from so it tends to feel like the same old derivative story. But this one is different. Yes, it is just another story of a character journey; one person's transformation from unimportant peon to dramatic hero.

But in this case, that character is a goblin. Jig is the nearsighted, runt of his tribe who gets no respect from his fellow goblins. One day he gets captured by a band of adventurers who are exploring the tunnels where his tribe lives, and then gets no respect from humans, dwarves and elves too.

Jig is somehow different from his fellow goblins. For one thing, he's observant. He pays attention to other people and understands their motivations. When he falls in with the adventurers, it would never occur to Jig, but we quickly see that he's probably the smartest member of the group. The group is led be a human prince who's ethics aren't very different from the typical goblin. The prince's brother, the party wizard, is half-crazed by his own power. The party's dwarven cleric is steadfast and uptight about his map-making. The party is rounded out with an elven thief who, like Jig, has been pressed into service by the prince.

At first Jig is awed by the level of fighting skill displayed by the adventurers and how they work as a team in combat. Of course, combat is about the only way they function as a team. We get to see the inter-party dynamics of a typical group of "heroes" who are on a major quest to recover an eons-lost magic item of wondrous power. And this group has issues.

The setting of the story is as interesting as the characters. It's a dungeon crawl of the most traditional sense. The dangers grow stronger as the party delves deeper, until they finally reach the monster at the end of the book. Then a hero is born as Jig rises to the challenge of becoming an adventurer in his own right.

Without getting into specifics of the story, in Goblin Quest, Hines turns the fantasy genre upside down. Here, adventuring groups are a dime a dozen, always wandering into the goblin tunnels and causing trouble. The goblins don't mind so much because it gives them something to do and makes for fresh meat in the communal stew pot. Through Jig's eyes, Hines explains why goblins are always nothing more than fodder for the standard adventuring group's sword practice. It's all due to goblin culture and attitude.

Goblin Quest was a lot of fun to read. The story is interesting, and the characters and setting are fresh takes on the standard fare. Even the evil necromancer gets a juicy twist. Hines' writing style is easy to read and he delivers lots of story details without using tons of exposition. The information flows from Jig's observations and interactions of the characters. Hines masterfully lets the characters' actions speak for themselves to tell us about their personalities and at no point does he have to tell us what kind of person a character is. I look forward to the other two books in the series.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Voyages of the Pyramid Builders

Book review 2010.09

Author: Robert M. Schoch

One of my other passions has always been anthropology. If my university had offered it, it would've been one of my several majors, maybe even the one I got a degree in. In this book, Schoch synthesizes an incredible amount of historical and anthropological data to create a picture of history that is far-seeing and, well, just frikkin' neat.

The first chapter covers the high incidence of pyramids located all over the world. Then Schoch moves into comparing the myths of the many pyramid-building cultures to build a ground work for his later discussions.

Apparently, if you're not a professional anthropologist, archaeologist, or historian of the ancient world, there is lots you don't know about ancient cultures and how they spread around the world. Schoch spends lots of time discussing the accepted theories of the spread of peoples into the North America, and then discusses what the evidence shows. It's WAY more interesting than crossing the Bering land bridge.

There's a lot of information collected in this book. Personally, I thought that the author spends a little too much time showing how ancient peoples could've traveled and related with one another. Just when I was getting bored, he moved into chapter eight, which is the crux of his presentation. Essentially, his theory for why people originally settled the Americas has as much to do with comets and meteors as it does with hunting and gathering. While Schoch does wax poetic on occasion, he incorporates geological data, mythology, and physical evidence to support every statement he makes.

After a deep and very believable treatise on ancient cultures and their pyramids, Schoch then sets all that explanation aside as the set up for his closing remarks: If we're only now in this modern era learning how culturally advanced and well-traveled our ancient ancestors were, couldn't it be possible that THEY had ancient ancestors of their own? Even older civilizations and cultures who influenced THEIR growth and development.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have done enough prior research that not everything hit me out of left field. I recommend it for all of my friends who are into cultural anthro or ancient history. He knows who he is.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Changes

Book review 2010.08

Author: Jim Butcher

It goes without saying that this is my favorite novel series of all time. Storm Front, the first novel in the series, is the book I spent several years trying to write. After reading Storm Front, and then subsequent novels in the series, I realized that I was done. There was no need for me to write a novel of any sort, Jim Butcher did it for me and I don't think I have anything to add to the genre.

One of the reasons I like the Dresden Files so much is that Butcher surrounds his flawed protagonist with clever, funny, and most importantly, interesting characters. And it's always been clear to me that Jim Butcher is a gamer because his characters all level up in between books. They aren't static. They have their own storylines that grow and change over time, just like Harry does.

I'm not going into details of this story because the book is still new. All I'll say is that like the previous couple of books, Harry Dresden continues to come into his own as a Wizard, and as usual, the name of the book symbolizes the story on several levels. Well, in this case, the one word says it all; we don't need symbolism to tie it together. And true to Butcher-form, the action and intrigue in this story starts from page one and never lets up.

Butcher continuously expands the world and setting with every book, and this one holds to that trend. He takes us to new parts of our world and the Nevernever. And Harry Dresden learns things about his world and the people in it, too. Some very surprising and painful things.

Changes is one of the best books to date, and I'm looking forward to the next one. And there WILL be a next one. You hear me, Butcher? I loved this book so much that as soon as I finished the last page, I wanted to simultaneously punch Jim Butcher in the head and pat him on the back.

Just as in the previous book, Turn Coat, one of my favorite supporting characters got some of the spotlight: Mouse. I've loved Mouse since his introduction in the novel Blood Rites, where he helped Harry escape from the flaming-poo-flinging monkey demons. Best opening scene in the history of literature.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Time and Relative Dimensions in Space

I'm behind on my book reviews and that stinks. I've been reading enough to fill my quota, but I haven't been making time to write the reviews. I blame it on the British. No really, it's their fault. I'm not jumping onto my European-invasion soapbox again. This is aimed directly at the British, rather than all of Western Europe, more specifically, the blame lies squarely on the BBC. And I guess Netflix isn't exactly free of blame either.

I've been catching up on Doctor Who. Lots of Doctor Who. Doctor Who was my favorite show during my teenage years. (I experienced the awesomeness of Star Wars as a kid, so I was past that.) Doctor Who had all the hardcore scifi that I wanted, twisty, expansive story lines, and just a touch of humor. And the most amazing time machine / space ship ever invented.

Thanks to the beauty of Netflix, over the last few months I've watched some of the older episodes from the first two Doctors, seen the first appearance of Jon Pertwee, which I'd never seen before, and watched most of Tom Baker's epic run, mostly for the nostalgia of my teenage years.

I'm about to watch the last season of the scarf and look forward to seeing the entirety of the Peter Davison run. Once I get halfway through his time as the Doctor, I'll be in all new material! That's right, I've never seen any of the stories about the sixth, seventh, or eighth Doctors. And all of that is just to get me warmed up to re-watch Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant! Maybe by then I'll have learned to love the new guy too.

So I'll get a couple of book reviews posted soon, and we've also played some great games recently that I'll have to post about too. But up next: Jim Butcher's Changes.

Now reading: The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks by Max Brooks

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Slammer's long walk

So we're talking about getting a new dog.

Our previous dog, a beautiful black greyhound named Slammer, died on Groundhog Day this year. She and I had gone out so she could go to the bathroom before the family left for school and work. When we came back into the house, she took two steps inside, stumbled, yelped in pain, and collapsed on the floor. I held her in my arms as she gasped for breath and whined. Her heart was beating arrhythmically, so I knew things were bad. I don't know if it was a heart attack, seizure, or aneurism, but it happened quickly. In less than a minute, my faithful companion was gone.

My wife, kids, and I took the day off to grieve and take care of our dog. It was not an easy day, and the pain is still strong for all of us. It's no coincidence that around that time, I stopped blogging. I also stopped responding to e-mail and most other forms of communication. Slammer was my steadfast companion, keeping me company in the wee hours of night while I watched TV or wrote. When she was ready for bed, she'd harass me relentlessly until I gave up and followed her lead. She was a quiet, kind, and loving soul. And now she's in doggy Valhalla, sleeping on their doggy beds and chasing their game animals before retiring to the mead hall at day's end.

When we first decided to adopt a rescued greyhound, we contacted a regional rescue group (the now-defunct CVGreys) and set up a home visit. We had our eyes on a different dog, but they brought several out to our house, one of which was Slammer. When they arrived, the dogs moved as a herd of deer through our house, checking the place out. After a few minutes of greetings and exploration, most of the animals settled in the living room where their people were. Slammer staked out a space in front of our big window, plopped down and promptly rolled onto her back and went to sleep. She quite literally adopted us. (Meanwhile, the dog we *thought* we wanted was unsure and wouldn't settle. I think he was nervous around our boys.)

A week later, it became official and she returned for a second visit, this time with her bags packed. Our adjustment period was short. We crate-trained her for a few weeks, but it became apparent that she wasn't happy spending her day locked up in a cage. She would force the door open, break the plastic lining tray, and tear up anything we gave her to play with. On those days we came home to find her out of the crate, she'd be lying in the floor nearby, wagging her tail and grinning.

Realizing that she was telling us she was ready for some independence, we started locking her in our bedroom via babygate. That lasted for a while, and then we started coming home to her once again in the living room on her pillow. And naturally, when we finally took the last step and removed the babygate to give her run of the house during the day...we'd have to pry her out of the bedroom when we got home at the end of the day.

Slammer was a smart, sassy, fun-loving girl. And I still miss the hell out of her. But the rest of the family is ready to move on, and they're right. Naturally no animal will ever replace her, but it's time to extend our loving home to another rescuee. And no, there's no doubt at all that we're getting another greyhound. They're awesome!

Now reading:
In this photo - a gluten-free cookbook.
Currently -
Nocturnal by Scott Sigler. Great action & urban fantasy/scifi story.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Dinosaur Park

Book review 2010.07

Author: Hayford Peirce

Dinosaur Park is a fun, pulpy, scifi adventure set in the far-flung future when humanity has colonized one end of the universe to the other. The story begins on a backwater planet where the feudal society of dinosaur ranchers is preparing for the annual spring festival, the March of Thirty-three Flowers. One 10-year old boy’s childish prank (dosing a T-Rex with sneezing powder) kicks off a story of death, imprisonment, and thirst for revenge.

The main plot is a universe-spanning revenge tale with a protagonist who seems to have little control over his destiny. The story is well-written and action packed, especially in the second half. While the story builds up steam, we get immersed in a setting that is completely alien, and simultaneously, very familiar.

Much of the author’s humor is expressed in proper nouns. Place names and people’s titles are at first annoying and distracting in their silliness, but quickly become enjoyable for their consistency. For example, the story begins in the year 28,373 FIP, or the 28,373rd Flowering of the Indomitable Perpetuality, which is the newer way of counting time, contrasted with the OFR, or Old Fallacious Reckoning.

I found the story to be reminiscent of the one of my favorite scifi series, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. Meanwhile, Peirce’s writing style reminded me of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, mostly in the way we are exposed to the expansive setting. It may be futuristic and alien, but it’s still peopled with human beings and their foibles. The story is as much a travelogue of this incredible universe, as it is the story of one man’s revenge.

While simply written, the tale is complexly layered, like a fine meal. All of the little details, like where the dinosaurs come from, the role played by the mysterious ancient race, and how our hero fits into the greater schemes of greater men, are woven together in a satisfying way.

This book was fun, interesting, and filled with dinosaurs. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Heat Wave

Book review: 2010.06

Author: Richard Castle

This is a novel written as a tie-in to the ABC show Castle. Supposedly, the book is the product of fictional fiction author Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), after spending the show's first season shadowing city homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic).

If you've seen any episode of the show, then you've read the book. Heat Wave follows the same pattern as Castle and features the same characters, only with different names.

The story is okay. It would make a good episode of Castle, but as a novel, it falls short of thrilling or, well, interesting. I was bored as I walked through the adventure. I expect better from this particular fictional author. It's not that it's poorly written or plotted; the story pans out well and is a good mystery. But I kept thinking that I'd rather be watching the story unfold on TV the way they usually do. The most entertaining part of the book was the author's acknowledgements at the end; they were cute and a little tongue in cheek.

Instead of reading the book, I suggest catching up on the TV show, which is very entertaining. Fillion and Katic have a great rapport, although naturally Fillion steals the show, and they're surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Richard Castle is easily the third "perfect role" for Nathan Fillion, with the first two obviously being Malcolm Reynolds and Captain Hammer.

Now listening to: The Secret World Chronicles via Podiobooks.com
(superhero fiction by Mercedes Lackey and Steve Libbey)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Of cowboys and pirates

Today I have to share my newest musical finds: a pair of metal bands called Ghoultown and Alestorm.

Ghoultown - Life After Sundown
Ghoultown is best described as 'spaghetti western horror metal' and it's damned good. The music captures the mood of the songs' stories perfectly. It is melodius and haunting, and the band blends it seamlessly into pure hardcore metal. But as usual for me, it's the vocals that bring it all home, and these vocals are hauntingly delivered by frontman Count Lyle. Icing on the album cover is artwork by one of my favorites, Dan Brereton, creator of the Nocturnals.

I'm looking forward to purchasing another of their albums.

Alestorm - Captain Morgan's Revenge
Alestorm is, plain and simply, pirate metal. Fun, frolicking party music. It thrashes hard and fast as only true European metal can, and dragging you along as the band jigs and reels its way across the seas and stops only for carousing in pirate-friendly taverns. The art work here is good too. The band has released a second album, so I might check it out too.

I don't like Alestorm as much as I do Ghoultown, but it's not fair to judge them against one another. Yes, they're both metal, but one is pirates and the other is Old West horror. See? Not the same thing at all. I have to say the reason I like Ghoultown more that Alestorm has as much to do with the fact that I like westerns and undead more than I like pirates, as much as it does with differences in musical styles.

Both bands capture their genres perfectly in their music. If pirates put together a metal band, they'd sound like Alestorm, only not quite as good. And ditto for gunslingers fighting undead in Sergio Leone's Old West.

Finally, in a completely different mood, I picked up my favorite songs by Dave Dudley. Good, old truck driving music. You just can't escape your roots, and not that I'd want to. Any of these three collections keep my very happy as I cruise down the highways.

Now watching: Some of the old Tom Baker-era Doctor Who. I love Netflix streaming.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Drive-By Truckers and other distractions

Man, I've been distracted and busy lately and fallen behind on my posting. So here's an update.

I finally kicked off my game of Savage Worlds, and am trying to keep to a weekly playing schedule, but I don't know how long I'll be able to keep it up. We're all to a fun start, but I'll put all the details on that blog rather than here.

Last weekend, a friend and I went to see Drive-By Truckers. Awesome show. They played a good mix of old and new songs, power tunes and ballads. I'd like for the pedal steel guitar to see a little more use. They closed the show with Steve McQueen, one of their top dozen songs. As they wound it up to a finish, they broke into Warren Zevon's Ain't That Pretty at All, and after that, jumped back into the chorus of Steve McQueen. Holy crap, they know how to rock.

This is the third time I've seen the Truckers, and they haven't given up an inch. I didn't stay for the encore because I had to get my car out of parking garage before lock up, so I don't know if they played as long as they used to. In the previous shows I've seen, they finished the encore set with Jim Carroll's People Who Died, another incredible piece of rock & roll that fits right in with the Truckers' style of story telling. There were way too many t-shirts for me to choose from, so I settled quickly on DBT's logo pint glass and drove all the way home with a goofy grin on my face.

Last week I sent my laptop to reform school to get its wireless network card repaired. There was a note on HP's website calling for a free warranty repair of the exact problem I've had since November, namely, the computer forgot that it had a wireless card. Then last week, I found out that my sister-in-law's Toshiba laptop was having the same problem. Is there some network card conspiracy at play here? Are they all fizzling at the same time for some reason? Anyone else out there in this boat?

I've also fallen in love with the TV show "Bones," and have been spending every waking moment watching that. TNT started over with the first season last week too, so that's even more exciting! Combine that with season 3 of Dexter (via Netflix), and my evenings are full.

And on top of all these FUN distractions, I've been busting my tail at work for the last few weeks. Not really working any additional time, but working harder and more intensely, so it's the same as working more hours. I'm exhausted at the end of the day and don't want to touch a keyboard again until I have to.

That's the quick version; more to come. Meanwhile, I have to crank up Decoration Day.

Now reading: Echo by Terry Moore

Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox

Book review: 2010.05

Author: Eoin Colfer

In the interest of full disclosure — I love the Artemis Fowl series. This series is a wonderful example of urban scifi. I don't know if "urban scifi" is a real subgenre, but it's certainly not an urban fantasy. There is magic and fantasy creatures (fairies, pixies, trolls, and the coolest dwarf I've ever seen), there are also lasers, jetpacks, and underground spaceships. And I'm pretty sure that lasers trump fairies when it comes to genre classification.

The central character in the series is a quintessential wealthy evil genius — who happens to be 8 years old when the series begins. Artemis Fowl is the criminal mastermind that I always wanted to be. He plots world domination and is assisted by his bodyguard, Butler, who is another one of Colfer's amazing characters. (If you know Brock Samson from Venture Brothers, the you know Butler.) In the first book, Artemis encounters a young fairy, Holly Short, who is a reconnaissance officer for the Lower Elements Police. That's right, Holly is a LEPrecon officer.

In this book, Artemis and Holly have to travel back in time to procure a cure for Artemis' mother, who is suffering from a rare and deadly fairy plague. I dreaded reading this book because of the time travel. Time travel is hard to do well, and rarely succeeds. But Colfer, with his usual panache, embraces those dangers and twists them to his will. The paradox of time travel is a central plot point, twisting the story into a Mobius strip held together with a Gordian knot. In other words, he makes it work and uses the paradox in a very simple way.

This book is probably my least favorite of the series, but there are five previous books for you to enjoy before you get here. Actually, I realized quickly that I haven't read the previous book, so I'll have to go back to that one soon.

These books are full of humor, great characters, good story, and lots of criminal activity: spying, heists, and mayhem. They are really worth checking out, especially if you listen to audio books. The audio version is read by an incredibly talented voice actor who really brings the stories to life. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Power Ranger for life

Holy Crap! I just now looked at this article sent to me by a friend: a former Power Ranger has joined the UFC wrestling guild and challenged Jean Claude van Damme to a fight.

Ordinarily, I don't like linking to news articles in a blog post because a) they're of limited duration, and b) everyone else is linking to them on their MyFace tweets too, so they don't need to be covered by me.

But this one is special. Because, if you refer back to one of my earliest posts, you'll know that I'm a hardcore Power Rangers fan. Keep in mind, I was in college when Power Rangers originated, in 1992 or '93. I used to skip philosophy and religion classes in order to watch the show.

Jason David Frank was the first person to expand the ORIGINAL (and most awesome) crew of five rangers, taking up the mantle of the previously unknown Green Ranger. Only, in reality, he was a thrall of the evil Rita Repulsa and single-handedly defeated all five rangers — in part due to her mystical aid, but mostly because he was that stinkin' awesome. But just before Rita could kill them once and for all, he overcame her control and saved the team. Shortly thereafter he became the most pure and powerful ranger of all — the legendary White Ranger, and led the team to many a victory against Rita and her replacement, the evil Lord Zedd.

JDF went on to star in more subsequent incarnations of Power Rangers than any other actor, even taking on the role of archaeology professor / mentor to the group of rangers in Power Rangers: Dino Thunder.

And all this just pours right out of my experiential memory. I am such a dork.

But as far as I'm concerned, there's no one better to whip JCvD's ass. Look out Jean Claude - it's morphin' time!

(I apologize for the lack of images in this post. I wanted to add a LOT of them, but in searching for images, I started reading blogs and quickly got distracted.I haven't sussed it out yet, but there might be a new PR series (or maybe just a new season of PR: Jungle Fury) starting next month!

Now reading: Catching up on my pile of comics - Detective Comics, Ex Machina, Sword, and Doctor Sleepless.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero

Book review 2010.04

Author: Robert Kaplan

A summary of this book from chapter 15: “We have come to know zero intimately in its mathematical, physical and psychological embodiments. It remains elusive.”

After reading three really enjoyable novels, I decided a change of pace was in order. This is one of those books that’s been on my shelf for some time. It’s a recent work, as academic treatises go, from 1999, and purports to be a historical look at the role of zero in mathematics since the dawn of time.

You see, ancient peoples didn’t have zero in their math because they were, as Kaplan describes it so well, only using numbers to represent heaps of things and exchanges of goods and monies. They weren’t doing any fancy theoretical maths.

The first section of this book explores that history and how the concept of zero evolved in math and in philosophy. It turns out that our beloved null spent time as the representation of the evil absence – the void; and at other times as the embodiment of brahman and God - all that is.

My reaction to this book is conflicted. Kaplan is an entertaining writer and a master of the food metaphor. His explanations and mathematical examples are clear and concise. And there isn’t too much math; I didn’t walk away from the book at any time feeling like I had bombed his test. Overall, I enjoyed the exploration.

Should any of you care to borrow the book, you can expect short examinations of the mathematics of Greece, India, and the Middle East, all of whom intermingled their ideas, creating a wonderful melting pot of mathematic theory. He also addresses the Mayans, who developed their science in isolation.

The author naturally makes his way to the Middle Ages where mathematics really evolved into our modern forms. He doesn’t dwell on any period or place overly much, and only discussed my heroes Descartes and Leibniz in passing. (I admit that I sneered when he referred to Leibniz as the “co-founder” of the calculus. While I’m glad everyone plays nicely together for the love of the craft, I’m just an armchair mathematician, so I can pick a favorite, and for me, it’s my man Gottfried.)

What I had trouble with was his philosophical meanderings, especially in the latter part of the book. After covering the role of zero in mathematics and philosophy, which was the real meat of the book and done very well, Kaplan branches out to explore zero's roles in the physical world and psychology. And that got boring pretty quick. Still, I couldn’t stop reading because I was in the home stretch and as I said, Kaplan is a skilled writer. He kept the math/philosophy/psychology geek in me entertained in his winter wonderland enough to shovel my way through that unending snowfall that is the last quadrant of the book.

If you like mathematics or philosophy as much as I do, it’s worth a read. I certainly learned some stuff and enjoyed the ride. But for the other 98% of you, don’t bother.

While I’m on the topic, I’ll point you to two other excellent books for your math fix. First, for a wonderful read on the history of math and philosophy in the Middle Ages, check out Descartes’ Secret Notebook by Amir D. Aczel. I read this book last year and enjoyed every minute of it. It was more dry than Kaplan, but had a very strong historical essay bent. And of course, covered my favorites in detail: Descartes, Leibniz, Galileo, and a bunch of others.

Next, for a fun way to brush up on your basic math and math theory, please do yourself a favor and read The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (I own that one and would be glad to loan it to you.)

And now I’ll leave you with my favorite line from this book: “Pause a moment to savor the bouquet of so absurd a situation.”

Friday, February 05, 2010

Gamers raising money for Haiti

The RPG download store, DriveThruRPG (also known as RPGNow) recently made the gaming community an offer we couldn't refuse: donate $20 to Doctors Without Borders in exchange for a ton of gaming materials donated by a big list of gaming publishers.

This offer ran through the end of January, and now that the whizzing of the computers has settled down, they have their final tally. Table top gamers threw down an amazing $178,900 in support of helping Haiti. That's a major donation for humanitarian aid that came about because the people who run our favorite gaming supply store took the trouble and time to rally the publishers for contributions of products to sweeten the pot for us gamers.

Many of these publishers are normal men and women for whom these products represent a major investment of time and money, and not giant gaming conglomerates. The goons running the music industry would have us believe that artists and creators can't afford to and shouldn't give away their creative properties. Well these artists and creators decided that a major loss in sales and profits of their core products was a small price to pay in order to entice much-needed donations out of their very tiny pool of customers. Well, at $20 a pop, apparently our little community isn't so tiny after all!

I lift my glass to all of these people: the gamers who donated their money, the publishers who donated their works, and most of all, DriveThruRPG / RPGNow for pulling it all together so quickly. But the real winners are Doctors Without Borders.

Read their official announcement here.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I love my shiny new iPod

As many of you loyal readers know, I had a birthday recently. On its own, it was fine as birthdays go, but my wonderful wife wanted to spoil me with something extravagant this year. She gave me two options: an e-reader or an iPod. I was beside myself with ecstasy!


After debating with my ecstatic self over night, I made my decision: I wanted the iPod touch. To get a second opinion, I bounced the situation off of a couple of coworkers, telling them that I was faced with a difficult choice.

One of them said, “Well, you’re not exactly faced with Sophie’s Choice here, are you? I don’t see a wrong answer.” After a few minutes’ discussion, I felt that I had indeed made the right decision.

The e-reader would be nice because I buy a lot of gaming PDFs and it would be nice to have a more portable way to read them, especially larger ones that I don’t want to print out. But the iPod touch can handle that with the help of an app. And I really want the iPod’s ease-of-use for downloading and listening to podcasts.

So I’ve had my new wonder-gadget for a couple of weeks now. I added a few apps and eventually realized that I can put music on it too.

For my wife, the iPod has been a mixed blessing. There’s no doubt in her mind that it was the best birthday present ever(!), but now she has to vie against it for my attention. Harkening back to my coworker’s comment, she has dubbed it ‘Sophie’ and refers to it as my other woman. She felt REALLY threatened the night I brought the iPod to bed so that I could finish a story I was reading via the e-Reader app.

Now listening to: Alt Nation on XM

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Book review 2010.03

Author: Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith

This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for a while, and I finally remembered to get it from the library. While reading it, I decided to do the right thing and compare it to the original, so I downloaded Pride and Prejudice to my iPod via Manybooks.net and the eReader app.

Seth Grahame-Smith did an excellent job of re-writing the story to layer in zombies, without changing the overall theme or details of the original. The zombie plague falls into the background as part of the setting and story, without overshadowing the original tale.

Pride and Prejudice is foremost a story about prattling women, what we nowadays refer to as a “period piece.” Quite frankly, I couldn’t bear to read it without the zombies to spruce it up. Let’s face it, A Room With A View is a great movie, but wouldn’t it be even better if Helena Bonham Carter’s character had been trained by Shaolin monks to be a katana-wielding zombie slayer, as young Elizabeth Bennet was here?

Of course, families of means have their daughters and sons trained in Japan, rather than by peasant monks, but the Bennet family is not so well off. Sometimes the story is over the top, as when Elizabeth slays three ninja without so much as drawing a breath, or entertains friends by doing a handstand for over an hour. That’s right – zombies AND ninjas! Seth Grahame-Smith did a great job with this re-imagining of a terrific piece of classical literature.

Whenever something fun happened in the book, I’d double check the original on my iPod to see how it played out without zombies or G-S’s humor. Many times I was surprised to find that the little bit of humor was not his doing, but was exactly as written by Austen. And it’s her sarcastic and humorous take on English society and culture that carries the story.

While I intended to read this lightly, skimming pages at a time while the women prattled on, and they DO prattle on for pages at a time, I frequently couldn’t. It was an interesting story and would’ve been even without the zombies. But I wouldn’t have read it were it not for the Grahame-Smith. And his handling of some details really enhanced the story, such as how he resolved things with that reprobate Wickham. Just what he and Lydia deserved and very funny too.

Dracula the Un-Dead

Book review 2010.02

Author: Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt

From the book's Afterword:
Dracula the Un-Dead is a multifaceted sequel to a multilayered novel. Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt follow the lives and fortunes of the surviving characters... All have suffered irreparable damage in both their personal and their professional lives as a result of their past encounters with Dracula. 

I wasn't sure what to expect with this novel and took it up with some trepidation and cynicism. I mean, you don't just pick up a classic and proclaim to write the second volume in the series.

This book represents not only a continuation of the story, but also a reimagining of the original. They approach this story as only two life-long fans of Bram Stoker's work can. The original story was told from the points of view of the heroes confronting the monster. In this sequel, we get the "monster's" point of view. Additionally, we are presented with a larger story, which the limited perspecitves of the intrepid heroes could not begin to be aware of.

Dracula the Un-Dead is a well-written, compelling read, very much in the spirit of the original work.Yet the story is fresh, and takes place 25 years later. I like that the authors took a lot of creative liberties with the time frame and historical data, and also made some adjustments to the details in order to create a wonderful and thrilling tale.

As much as I enjoyed this book, it has two faults: one minor and one major. First, this new take on the greatest of gothic monsters comes scarily close to making Dracula one of those monstrosities of modern day pop-fiction: a sparkly, romantic superman. They come VERY close to this travesty. Some people might say they do indeed cross that line. I'm willing to over look this because I'm just that much of a fan of Dracula, both the character and the literary work. And this work.

Now the second fault is this: the final chapter. Do yourself a favor and do not read chapter 63. The story ends with chapter 62. Those last five pages are meaningless AND don't make logical sense in the time frame. The character and the cargo could not arrive at the same place in the same, short amount of time, based on the events of the preceding chapter.

The authors claim that they included that chapter as a means of opening doors for the next book, but if you read it, you'll see that the chapter does the opposite and not including that chapter would have left things much more open, especially given the groundwork already put in place in the novel. So when you're reading this book, when the story ends -- stop reading. Let yourself savor that ending for a day or two. THEN come back and read the final chapter if you must.

This is a book I wouldn't mind owning because I liked it that much.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Little Brother

Book review 2010.01

Author: Cory Doctorow

This is a book I first encountered on Mur Lafferty’s podcast, “I should be writing.” And I’ve spent the past year trying to remember to find it and read it. I picked it up at the library last week and wolfed it down.

The title is a play on the Big Brother concept (that’s how I interpret it), and the first chapter reminded me of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat. The main character, Marcus Yallow, is a 17-year-old computer hacker who quickly finds himself in a tight spot. The first chapter is great, introducing the characters and their modern cyberpunk lifestyles. Not really full-on cyberpunk, but the characters represent OUR children who are growing up immersed in an amazing level of technology. (Seriously, how much longer will it be before our technology becomes “sufficiently advanced” enough to be like magic?)

Doctorow doesn’t give you time to get bored because no sooner does he have the characters on the stage and having fun than he literally jerks the stage out from under them. And from here on, the story is all too frighteningly real as Big Brother steps in and takes over.

I couldn’t put the book down. Like I said, these characters represent OUR children in the modern world. Their lives are filled with social networks, pocket computers, and constant surveillance by an un-caring and non-representative government. I loaned this book to George Orwell and upon reading it, he turned to me and said, “Holy shit…this is scary as hell!” I kid you not.

But Doctorow gives us hope that for all of Big Brother’s evil, there’ll always be a small, rebellious army of Little Brothers out there subverting the Idiot Savant’s control. And that helps me sleep at night.

Little Brother is a Young Adult novel, so you’ll have to look for it in your library or book store’s YA section. And I strongly encourage you to do so.

Remember kids: Overthrow the dominant paradigm and never trust anyone over 30.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Leveling up

My buddy wrote a couple of excellent posts about his ambitious goals for 2010, and it’s made me jealous. I like New Year’s Resolutions. It’s as good a time as any to say, “Hey, I just passed ‘GO’. Time to start my journey around the game board again. I wonder if I can do anything differently this time around.”

Or, more to my perspective: “I just gained a level. Now how do I want to spend my skill points and advances on myself?” Whether it’s New Year’s Eve, your birthday, or some religious Day of Reckoning, we all need to pick an annual point of reference and use it to look back and reflect. I prefer doing this on my birthday, which is only two weeks after New Year’s, so I start thinking about it on January 1st, and by my birthday, I have a pretty good idea how I want to spend those experience points.

Socializing
Wifey and I decided that this year we will spend more time with friends. Last year, our friends largely got pushed aside by family, and that left us both feeling unsatisfied. So we’re going to hang with our buds more this year and tell the fam to back off. 

Gaming
I intend to do more gaming. It’s my favorite hobby and form of socializing, and quite frankly I want more. I’m going to launch that Savage Worlds game I’ve been talking about. I’m going to invite friends over for board games. And I’ll toss a couple of spare games in the back of the car. I’m going to be like the gunslinging paladin of old: Have games – will travel.

Reading
Unlike my buddy linked to above, I have no crazy notion of reading 50 books. I like Food Network and Netflix too much. Two books per month seems reasonable, but not very challenging. I’ll shoot for three, but I’m not going to count graphic novels or comics. (Although I’d count the six ‘pocket book’ volumes of Strangers in Paradise that I plowed through a few months ago. Damn good story too.)

Blogging
Once again, I make myself an empty promise to blog more regularly. Weekly. Honest to Odin, a blog post each week is my goal and may Thor whack me on the head if I fail. One way I’m going to do this is by posting a short review of each book I read and any new games I play. I’ve been thinking a lot about other themes to blog on, so I might try a few experiments too.

Healthy-ing
Last summer I proved that I can easily drop a few pounds and keep them off if I give it an honest try – and that’s without doing much in the way of exercising. But my fondness for heavy beer and the October – December Hershey’s binge got the better of me, so now I’m starting over again. This year, I’ll keep a better eye on both and add a few more fresh fruits and vegetables to the mix.

Working
I’ve challenged myself to rise up and do something this year at work. I work hard and do a good job, but it’s been a while since I really gave it my all and rolled a critical hit. So I’m putting a few XPs into my work skills this level.

That’s it for my resolutions for the year. I’ll keep you posted on how they play out.


Now reading: Dracula the un-dead (the new sequel) and Knights of the Dinner Table #157

Monday, January 11, 2010

Deal us a hand of winter games

The winter is off to a snowy, frigid start, with the most amazing snowfall ever (nearly three feet) followed by several weeks of below-freezing temperatures. We’re not used to this New England-style weather here in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. But my wife & kids & I have taken advantage of the harsh outdoors by playing lots of games in the warmth of our home.

We’ve filled the days with endless combinations of Munchkin, using the epic rules to extend the game to level 20. Add in Killer Bunnies, Apples to Apples, and various other board & card games, and some family time on the Wii, and I’d say we’ve made the most of the winter break.

And somewhere out there, a greater cause benefits from our fun. As a family we participated in this year’s Million Minute Family Challenge. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I just wasn’t good about logging our time; our performance is underrepresented by a good 8 – 10 hours. But that wouldn’t have been enough to lift our state from third place in the rankings. 

New Year’s Eve included a few games as well, including the party game Werewolves of Miller's Hollow. It’s a fun murder mystery game wherein players play the roles of innocent villagers – except for the two amongst them who are werewolves. Each night the werewolves slay a villager, then during the day, the villagers have a witch hunt to find one of the fiends, whom they then put to death. Unfortunately, our group was not very good at this and inevitably lynched innocent villagers by mistake. We played twice and the werewolves were victorious both times.

Up next: ambitious goals.