Monday, November 30, 2009

And That's a Wrap

Thanksgiving feast judged a huge success!

This is the last post about Thanksgiving, I promise.

The feast was a huge success, as it turns out. The brined turkey was, in fact, moist and delicious. My wife remarked that normally the turkey is just another part of the meal for her, but on this occasion it was delectable and one of her favorite dishes. Given the work that went into it, that was pretty darned nice to hear.

Once again, for those just tuning in (or finding this article via a search engine), the recipe I used was Alton Brown's "Good Eats" Roast Turkey. The turkey came out very juicy, not the least bit salty, and the seasonings and aromatics gave it a nice flavor without being strong enough that you actually said "hmm, this tastes of allspice berries." About the only change I'd make was to add some broth or something to the bottom of the roasting pan, as I found that the turkey didn't really release a lot of juice during the roasting process (it was a breast rather than a full bird - not sure if that made a difference) and what was in the pan got kind of burned and black and sludgy.

So Thanksgiving was awesome - my wife and daughter and I enjoyed our magnificent dinner while my sons wandered around not eating. But just as wondrous was the next day, when I had the same meal AGAIN for lunch. Now THAT's celebrating.

As part of our family tradition, the Christmas decorations went up this weekend, too. Both trees came up out of the basement to be assembled and "trimmed" with ornaments and lights.

"Wait," you command, befuddled, "did you say BOTH trees? As in two separate Christmas trees?"

You read correctly - we have two full trees in our house. And it's entirely my wife's fault. You see, many years ago she started getting me Hallmark's Star Trek and later Star Wars ornaments as Christmas presents. At first it was just an Enterprise here, a Millennium Falcon there, and it was no big deal. But we've been together a long time, and their numbers compounded each year, until I now own a veritable starfleet of ships. And some years ago, my wife put her foot down. Remember now, that she was the one who started buying these for me in the first place. But she put her foot down - those silly spaceships were taking over our Christmas tree and she didn't like it.

So what else could we do - we got a second tree reserved exclusively for my collection of sci-fi ornaments. Most of which are of the "lights and sound" variety, so they tend to speak in the voices of prominent actors from the series when they're turned on, making quite the cacophony as the Borg threaten to assimilate me while Spock wishes me a merry Christmas and (due to a malfunctioning chip) C3PO very slowly bemoans his future as a spice miner on Kessel. All to the sound of laser blasts and explosions.

And, being a geek, naturally I modded my tree. I bought some of the cold cathode lights that were made to be put inside a desktop computer to make it light up and glow, but these aren't meant to be plugged into a wall outlet. So I also had to take a computer power supply unit and surgically alter some of the wires so that it would come on when given power rather than waiting for a non-existent power button to be pressed. All I'm missing is a suitable tree-topper. I'd love a Death Star, particularly if it rotated, but I've never been able to find one the right size and weight to sit atop a tree.

So to recap, Thanksgiving dinner is in ma bel-lay, the lights are up out front, and the trees are up inside. Let the Christmas season begin!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

What are you thankful for? That's a tough question - there's so much to choose from.

I'm thankful that I've got my kids in my life, as they make me really happy and give me a feeling that I've truly done something worthwhile and meaningful with my life.

I'm thankful that my parents are around and in my life and my kids' lives. I'm thankful for my brother and his wife, and for my wife's parents and siblings, some of whom have very much become like siblings to me as well.

I'm thankful for the opportunity (such as it is) to tell stories for a living. The "for a living" part is very much To Be Determined at this point, but the opportunity is certainly there and I'm doing my best to take advantage of it. I'll be even more thankful if my wife can get herself into a stable employment situation.

I'm thankful that today is one of the great feasts of the year, and I'm thankful to have made it to another holiday season. I've always loved the holidays, and these days I feel like a kid the way I get into the whole Christmas spirit, although now it's more about the love and family than it is about the opening presents thing.

Most of all, I'm thankful for my beautiful wife. She inspires me, supports me, encourages me, and makes me a better person than I otherwise would be. Best of all, she loves me, which counts for a lot.

Happy Thanksgiving, Vellumites!

I'm off for the holiday, so look for a new post on Monday morning.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It’s All About the Horns

An old dude takes umbrage at those young punks stealing his wave

I recently found Dee Snyder’s blog “Take Back the Horns,” where he complains about how the “heavy metal horns” (a fist with the pointer finger and pinky finger extended) has been co-opted by mainstream non-heavy metal usage and he’s pissed off about it. And that, of course, got me thinking about the 1980s again. Yeah, I’m stuck in a bit of a rut here, but so much of what I still hold dear today was formulated in the 1980s that I just keep going back to that era.

Dee Snyder, for those who don’t remember, was the head cross-dresser of the band Twisted Sister. In the mid-80s, he emerged as a key spokesperson for rational thought when then-senator Al Gore’s music-hating witch-wife tried to ban those kids and their loud, crazy music through the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). That organization was perhaps better known as the “Washington Wives” for its composition primarily of bimbos with nothing meaningful to do with their time, but with husbands whose clout gave them a bully-pulpit from which they could point fingers at things they didn’t like and didn’t understand in an effort to have them censored.

And who, you might wonder, stood up in front of a congressional committee to defend freedom of speech and the rights of both musicians and the music-buying public? Of course, it was Frank Zappa, Dee Snyder and John Denver, who else? Yes, I confess that I was rather sure that rock music was doomed. Surprisingly, Zappa, the dude who named his kids Dweezil and Moon-unit, was actually quite cogent and did a pretty good job of exposing the nonsense as exactly what it was – a misguided clutch for attention and, quite possibly, a diversion from the music industry’s attempt to lobby through and have passed a tax on blank cassette tapes. Dee Snyder explained that his lyrics in songs like the teen anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It” had been grossly misinterpreted by the Washington Wives, which underscored the concern that PMRC-style censorship was a slippery slope, with considerable potential to mis-categorize, mis-understand and mis-handle music and the right to free speech that was supposed to protect it. Denver, much to the surprise of the Wives, who had thought his down-home country values meant that he’d naturally side with the screeching harpies who were attempting to shred the Bill of Rights, instead expressed his opposition to censorship in any form. In the end, the PMRC was largely impotent, although they were responsible for the voluntarily-applied “Tipper Stickers,” named for Gore’s abominable wife, that still show up on music to this day when it contains “explicit lyrics.” Way to protect the children there, Tipper.

So, back to Snyder. He’s got this new blog where he takes aim at the co-opting of the “Heavy Metal Horns” gesture. Case in point – a new Aol ad campaign features their new logo (did you notice it? You missed it, didn’t you? Yes! AOL is now Aol! See the difference? The, um, the o and the l are lower-case. Pretty snazzy, right? No, I didn’t know AOL was still in business, either.), their new logo superimposed over a photo of the Horns. What’s AOL got to do with heavy metal you ask? Well, if you actually did ask that, then you should really head over to Snyder’s blog, because he likes the way you think.

The site is actually pretty well done, despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to update it very often. He took the time to write some fairly detailed articles including an “About” page explaining why he’s outraged (this time) and a “Mission Statement” that defines the Horns, their history (thank Ronnie James Dio and blame Jon Bon Jovi for whatever you’ve got that needs blaming, according to Snyder), and their sacred relationship to heavy metal.

The blog looks to be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s clever and funny and gives us old metalheads a rallying cry that some might even be able to hear over the ringing in their ears from overly-loud Krokus concerts. Kudos to Snyder for having a little fun with himself and his music genre. And a belated "Heavy Metal Horns" to him and Zappa (and the late Denver) for standing up to the Washington Wives all those years ago.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Continued - Thanksgiving Forever!

This week is about two things: writing like a madman and looking forward to Thanksgiving. And doing whatever I can to help my wife find a new job, so I suppose that’s three things.

The writing’s going fairly well. I’m only on the first draft, of course – much more writing, re-writing and editing lies between me and a finished novel. But I’ve got chapter one finished and chapter two is around eighty percent done. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I never did finish transcribing all of my various notes out of handwritten notepads, old emails I sent myself from work, word documents, Post-It notes, and so forth. Yet I need to have some of those notes available or I’m likely to leave out something important or generally screw up my book in some way that will make me angry and despondent in the future when I need to fix it by re-writing massive chunks of my manuscript. So I spent several hours this afternoon copying over notes from fourteen months ago. I got perhaps halfway through the thinnest of the three full notebooks I’ve got, and I didn’t touch any of the electronic notes I’ve got stashed away, yet. In knew this was going to take a while, but I really hoped that if I put it off long enough, the novel fairies would take care of it for me. Stupid fairies!!

Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is so close I can almost taste it. We’ve got our turkey – a fresh Plainville Farms young turkey breast. All the talk this year seems to be about brining, so I’m thinking hard about giving that a go. We even bought some kosher salt because evidently it’s platelet-shaped instead of square which makes it chemically work better. Good Morning America’s Sara Moulton has a recipe up for a brine that includes a bunch of other herbs and spices that I’m thinking of trying, but I’ve also found Alton Brown’s recipe which seems to have pretty good reviews as well. We’ve also got potatoes which I’ll whip to a fare-thee-well, and two (count ‘em TWO!) acorn squash that I’ll be cooking, mashing and mixing with copious amounts of brown sugar and cinnamon. And there should be plenty of leftovers since I’m the only one who really eats it (though my daughter told her class today that it’s one of her favorites. I wonder if she’d feel as strongly about it if she actually ate any?). My boys won the dressing battle, so we’ll be having Stove Top there. And honestly, I’m a sucker for the plain old cranberry sauce out of the can, so we bought one of those. Yeah, yeah, fresh cranberry sauce blah, blah, blah. I’m happy with my jellied, can-shaped jiggling glob of goop, thank you very much.

I’m trying to decide whether to try making fresh dinner rolls in the bread machine. The first time I tried they came out all dry and fell apart, but I’ve made a lot of bread since then and it’s worth a shot. Or I could just make a loaf of bread, which is pretty darned good, too. But my wife says we’ve still got brown & serve rolls in the freezer so I may just cheat and use those. I’ll have to see how ambitious I’m feeling on Thanksgiving morning.

So let’s see, we’ve got our brined turkey breast, potatoes, squash, dressing, cranberry sauce and bread covered. Then there’s the frozen corn, gravy, two different kinds of olives (my wife only eats green, I only eat black, and the kids won’t touch either of them), and, of course, dessert. Again, my wife and I have different tastes in desserts, so we’ll be going way overboard with not only pumpkin pie (her favorite), but also apple crisp (which I adore). Yeah, as if we’re going to be able to cram that in on top of everything else. But that’s the point – Thanksgiving is about raging excess, a tribute to the American Way as represented by the grossly distorted mythos surrounding the religious fundamentalists who came all the way here from England to have dinner with the Indians. I wonder who got to keep the leftovers?

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Best of the 80s

I happen to think that the 80s was a pretty great time, but then probably most people look back on their formative years with some amount of fond euphoria.

Granted, it was the height of the cold war. For instance, there’s 1983, the year civilization very nearly ended, with the Russians shooting down Korean airliners, Reagan firing up the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (a space-based system of satellites and weapons platforms designed to create a “shield” around the U.S. and its interests by shooting down any intercontinental ballistic missiles while they were still in flight), and the TV movie “The Day After” trying to show the world the horrors of global thermonuclear war. Check out that link when you’ve got a half-hour to kill, by the way – it’s a fascinating look at the details of how a NATO simulation, rising diplomatic tensions between East and West, and a crummy Soviet computer system very nearly caused the USSR to launch its nuclear missiles and bring the world to its knees. As Einstein said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

And as much as 1983 would have been a pretty craptacular year for the world to end (which isn’t to imply that there would be a good year, but, really, 1983?), the 80s in general were pretty cool, at least from an Entertainment perspective. Some examples? Well, it was 1982 when Disney World’s coolest park opened – EPCOT. Cooler still, at the time it was intended to be the genesis of an actual living, breathing city with permanent residents. The name, in fact, stood for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” Before that, you had the birth of CNN and, later, MTV which took the novel approach of actually playing music videos, unlike the more current lineup of reality shows and sitcoms.

For movies, it was one of the greatest decades for geekdom, giving us Conan (the first one, not the crappy second one), Beastmaster, Krull, Highlander, Die Hard, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lethal Weapon, First Blood, Rocky III, Risky Business, Platoon, Young Guns, The Untouchables, Caddyshack, Escape from New York, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But if one series really represents the glory of the 1980s, it’s not Indiana Jones, it’s not Rambo, it’s the story of time-traveling teen Marty McFly in the hit series Back to the Future.

I introduced my kids to that series this weekend – well, the first two, anyway – and they proved that the series holds up as well today as it ever did. They watched in rapt attention, exclaiming with alarm “Oh no! Is Doc Brown really going to get killed by the Libyans?? Who’ll take care of Einstein?” For those who haven’t seen the movies lately (and why not?), Einstein is Doc Brown’s dog.

We’ll probably watch the third movie on Thanksgiving or something, but seeing Marty scramble to get his parents together while trying to come up with 1.21 gigawatts of power for the flux capacitor gave my kids no small amount of joy and pleasure. As crazy and stupid and ridiculous as the 80s were with the big hair and the Pepsi Challenge and the Brat Pack, it’s good to know that some of the best entertainment of that era still holds up. I can’t wait to show my kids Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in a few years. And some day, when they’re older, Conan and I can teach them what is best in life, through the best of the 1980s.

Friday, November 20, 2009

[Book Review] Old Man’s War

A sci-fi novel by John Scalzi

I’ve read two books by John Scalzi. The first was a collection of his blog articles, all focused on guidance for prospective writers. It had a lot of similarities to King’s On Writing, but also emphasized Scalzi’s experience with online communities and things like blogs. It was in some part due to Scalzi’s suggestions that I went ahead and fired up Virtual Vellum as a blog, rather than just keeping a private writing journal in Word. He suggested that a writer who had taken the time to make a name for himself online would stand a better chance at getting published than an equally-talented writer without such credentials. What’s funny is that I mentioned this to Mil Millington, a humor writer whose work I’ve followed for many years, and Mil had a different experience. He said that having an online following seduced publishers into spending less on marketing than they otherwise would because “you already have an online following. They’ll buy your stuff regardless.” This despite the fact that his online followers were used to getting his content for free and weren’t the least inclined, generally speaking, to pay money for it. Mil also said that, essentially, getting published is a matter of pure and unvarnished luck unless you happen to already be famous for something else like winning the Olympics or sleeping with a politician. Well, I don’t think being on Good Morning America for two minutes really counts as famous (heck, I had lunch at the Dinosaur on Wednesday and nobody there even recognized me until I said hello to the owner). I think it’s safe to say that such fame, such as it is, is fleeting at best and probably isn’t going to help me sell any books. And my wife’s not a politician and isn’t likely to be, so that's that for the other option. All that’s left, then, is raw luck, to which I figure that my chances are as good as anybody else’s and I might as well have a go at it.

None of which has anything at all to do with the other book: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi. But nobody’s paying me to write book reviews which means I’m free to ramble on during the introduction about whatever amuses me.

Old Man’s War is a quick read, though I’m not sure if that’s because it’s a short book (though it’s certainly not hefty by any means) or because it takes hold of you by the skull and pulls your eyeballs across each page as rapidly as they can rip comprehension from the very text on the paper. I literally read the entire book in a single (fairly long) night, and I can’t think of any other book I’ve ever done that with. I’m not a terribly fast reader and usually only read 60-80 pages in a sitting. Instead, I sat up until the wee hours and devoured Old Man’s War from cover to cover.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s the greatest book I’ve ever read, but like a really good movie or TV show it’s just a pleasurable, welcome read that does such a good job of making you care about the characters and their situation that you simply can’t wait to see what happens next.

The premise of the novel is very interesting – that, in the future, humans have achieved interstellar space travel, however the ones who have it keep the Earth, their ultimate homeworld, largely isolated from it. Those who leave the Earth can never return, whether they go to colonize new worlds or to join the spacefaring colonial military. In fact, those who do join the military are almost exclusively retirees aged 75 and up who are hoping for the advanced medical technologies of the colonial military to somehow make them young again. And without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that that is just what happens, after a fashion.

But the galaxy is a big, nasty place, inhabited by a wide variety of alien creatures, most of whom either want the same planets that humans are trying to colonize, or may actually want to have humans as a snack. Or both. So the main character who, like the author is named John and who, like the author lived in Ohio and who, like the author worked as a writer, soon finds himself hurled headlong into a series of pitched battles against monstrous extraterrestrials. As far as I know, the author hasn’t actually done that yet, but consciously or otherwise I suspect he wants to.

The strengths of this novel are several. First, the author handles the technology in a believable way that’s sufficiently accessible to the average reader to be engaging without being overwhelming or seeming too much like magic. Next, he develops very real-seeming characters who resonate as if they’re people you might actually have met. This makes it much easier for the reader to care about and identify with them as they experience some truly amazing, and in some cases horrific, adventures. Lastly, his pace is good in terms of balancing action with suspense, both interspersed with little dips into “daily life” to break the tension. Best of all, he raises some really interesting questions about everything from the application of medical technology to remake people into what they might want to be (possibly in violation of the basic design premises of what entails the human being) to the ethics of dealing with foreign powers (in this case true aliens) in a scramble for limited and precious resources and with an assumption that failure to maintain a balance of power (or, even better, actual superiority) puts the entire human species at risk of annihilation. He doesn’t ever get too deep – that’s part of what makes this a very quick read – but the issues are there for the discerning reader who cares to engage them.

Beyond the fact that I ripped through this book with unprecedented speed, the best compliment I can give it is that I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on the sequels. Actually, the best compliment might arguably be that I’d love it if it were made into a movie. Hard to say which is the higher praise, but regardless it’s safe to conclude that I liked it a lot. If you’re a fan of futurism and small-unit combat against alien forces, then I highly recommend Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


No, it's not homophobic - that's actually what it's called. Let me clarify - I parked next to this today:

It was certainly an eyebrow-raising experience to see this thing parked at a Panera Bread in Clay, NY. But the story behind it is very interesting. You can check out the website at but the short version is that the car's owner had anti-gay graffiti sprayed onto her VW bug a couple of years ago and decided to leave it there. She's since driven the car all over the country, worked on films and books about the experience, kept a blog about the whole experience, and given lectures and interviews pretty much everywhere. In the process she's sold t-shirts and stickers to keep herself on the road, driven in various gay parades and had the car "wrapped" in the rainbow pattern with logo that you see in the picture (it used to be just gray). Whatever your thoughts on the issues she's addressing, there's no question that the car's a real attention-getter.

What the Hell Am I?

Be nice when you answer

Today I did it – I wrapped up my course for Onondaga Community College. I backed up all of my files (so that should I ever teach this course again, I won’t have to create every test and presentation from scratch. That would be nice), tallied up all of my final averages, and posted them to the school’s online grade submission program. Tell me if this makes sense: all of my assignments were graded on a percentage out of 100. So my students received final cumulative averages such as 91% or the like. Now, of course, colleges usually register Grade Point Averages on a 4.0 scale (with 4.0 being the highest you can get in any class or for an average across all classes), so it makes sense that there’d need to be a conversion. However, the grades needed to be entered into the grade program as LETTER grades. Instead of a 91%, I needed to enter an A. Or is that an A-? And therein lies the problem – there doesn’t seem to be any consistent scoring scale at OCC to convert percentage scores into letter grades. So what ended up being an A in my class might have been an A- in some other teacher’s class. How can that be, you ask? I have no idea, but it’s among the dumber things I’ve run into.

And before you wonder, yes, I searched high and low on both the school’s own public-facing and internal websites as well as by doing a Google search against anything OCC-related and I came up mostly empty. I did find grading scales used by two different teachers in two different departments – modern languages and science – but their scales weren’t the same, so I gave up trying to be consistent and just did what I wanted. On the plus side, despite some students who massively failed to complete their work throughout the semester (including one student who just didn’t show up for the last several weeks of the semester), I ended up with only one F in my entire class. I’m not thrilled by that – this class was designed and intended to be a cake-walk for anybody who showed up, paid attention, and carefully followed directions. Some folks aren’t so good at those things, but given the high number of As in my class, I’m at least comfortable that the course itself was well-presented and that its objectives were achievable. It’s funny, though, to see students who are new to the college experience complain loudly and often about how hard a class is because they’re used to the rampant hand-holding of high school. I imagine my course was a bit of a rude awakening in that regard, but at least they’ll be better prepared when they run into a truly difficult class and/or a lousy teacher. Well, I can hope, anyway. Regardless, I really did enjoy teaching this semester and I hope I get to do it again in the future. I met some really great folks and was glad of the opportunity to help them master some key computer skills that are guaranteed to be of value in their studies and their careers.

So tomorrow, I write. Which raises the question: what do I call myself? You see, writers typically aren’t considered to be writers until they actually publish something. But I’d expect it will take me around 4 months just to write my first novel, a couple more months to edit and revise it (minimum) and who knows how long to find a publisher for it (assuming that I ever do). So during all that time, I’m doing nothing but writing for hour after hour every day, but according to the writing community, I’m not a writer. So what am I? Unemployed? I’m just going to say I’m a writer and anybody who doesn’t like it is welcome to complain and even hop up and down if it makes them feel better. It’s not likely to be a big deal, anyway. As long as I don’t hang out in places that other writers frequent, there won’t be anybody around who’ll care whether I call myself a writer or a bard or a street sweeper. Except maybe the street sweeper’s union. You know how unions can be about that sort of thing.

I met with my old friend Senthil for lunch today, and he was if anything more enthusiastic about the prospect that I’m going to write some novels than I am. I have to say that I really appreciate the confidence people who know me seem to have in my ability to craft an exciting and entertaining story. I’m anxious to get to work in the hopes that I can live up to their expectations. One thing’s for sure – I’M looking forward to reading my stories, whether or not I can find a publisher to bind them and stick them on some store shelves. That’s one of the great things about having a crappy memory – if I write a book and then set it aside for a bit, I can then pick it up some time later and it will be almost as fresh to me as if it were somebody else’s work that had showed up in an box. Granted, that may be a bit of a problem when I’m trying to write and edit for continuity, but at this point I don’t have any unrealistic expectations that it’s likely to change anytime soon. My memory stinks, and that’s how it is.

For those who are interested, I’ll be doing my writing on a Windows 7 computer running Microsoft Office 2010 BETA, which I installed just this evening. So far it’s very much like Office 2007, but the few changes I’ve seen I’ve liked. Once I’ve spent some time with it I’ll post a review. So eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I write.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

[Game Review] Batman: Arkham Asylum

I’ve been playing Batman: Arkham Asylum on the PC and I’d say I’m pretty happy with it. It’s far from my favorite game ever (that’s probably Deus Ex), but it’s pretty good. Certainly the quality of the game is very high. It’s got some of the most visually impressive gameplay I’ve seen, both in terms of cinematic cutscenes and regular action. It’s also got very good voice acting and a dynamic, interesting storyline for the most part.

As the name implies, the game takes place entirely on Gotham City’s Arkham Island, home to an Asylum for the criminally insane, and, incidentally, home to many of Batman’s greatest rivals. The game begins with Batman escorting the Joker back to Arkham after having captured him attacking Gotham City. There’s a fairly long opening sequence as you walk with Joker’s guards into the depths of the Arkham facility before everything predictably goes to hell, but the walk gives you an opportunity to become familiar with some of the game’s controls and, if you pay attention, the layout of part of the Asylum that you’ll have to traverse again later.

The rest of the game is a hunt through the corridors and ventilation shafts of Arkham as you meet and defeat an array of villains ranging from Joker’s lackeys to well-known criminal elements like Victor Szasz and Harley Quinn. You also get to meet some of Batman’s notable and more noble acquaintances, including Commissioner Gordon and his daughter, the Oracle (formerly Batgirl). One of Batman’s gadgets is his computer-enhanced cowl which provides him with instant access to character biographies, maps, and real-time environmental information. This info often includes objects that Batman can pick up or interact with, as well as x-ray scans of everybody in the vicinity which are a big help in detecting thugs before they can jump you.

Batman’s other gadgets include his ever-present batarangs, which are handy for stunning bad guys and slicing ropes at a distance. He has his cape, which lets him glide down from above to avoid injury or even to launch a flying kick to an unsuspecting enemy. His Bat-grapple lets him zip up to high vantage points so he can climb buildings and perch on gargoyles. He can even drop down from those gargoyles to grab an enemy and hoist them up to dangle harmlessly above the ground.

These tools are especially helpful in what is arguably the most inexplicable part of the game – the Riddler has pointlessly scattered little question-mark-shaped statuettes all over Arkham. It’s a little hard to picture Riddler with a large sack of these statues thumping around in the ventilation shafts to hide these clues that do nothing but give Batman something to do to gain experience, but they’re there anyway.

So to summarize the positives: I like the graphics of the game, I like the story, I like the way the history of the Batman comics is woven through the game, and I like all of Batman’s cool gadgets (though I wouldn’t have minded if there were even more of them, as they’re as much a part of the Batman persona as his stoic manner and funky adversaries). Oh yes – and the game is quite long, so I feel like I’m really getting my money’s worth. Now on to what I don’t like:

It’s pretty apparent that this is a game that’s been developed with the console controller in mind. At the very least, it’s been heavily influenced by console-style gameplay, but as it was released first on the Xbox I think it’s safe to say that consoles are a key target market for Batman: Arkham Asylum. And here’s the thing – I don’t really care for console hand-to-hand combat. I’m a child of the 80s, before the concept was invented to that to succeed in a game you needed to know the secret combination of ←←→↑↓↑, which would result in a flying flipping lightning crescent jumpkick with triple-power and 10x experience score. Or something. I dunno. I don’t care to have to remember stuff like that when I’m playing a game. So in Batman, instead of relying on my aim and reflexes like I would in a more traditional first-person-shooter style of game (which, admittedly, Batman isn’t, at the very least because it’s a 3rd-person game where you see Batman running around at the center of your screen), instead I’m frantically clicking the left and/or right mouse buttons while double-tapping the spacebar and sometimes the left control key, plus occasionally hitting Q to toss a batarang, E to stun enemies with my cape, and C to grab them with my grappler. Combat is a fairly significant part of this game, and I find I dread it a little. It’s not truly enough to completely stymie my enjoyment of the game – particularly when I really enjoy using my grappler to zip up to the Asylum’s roofs and then glide down across the property, hopefully stomping on a thug when I land – but it’s definitely not as enjoyable for me as, for example, the combat system of a game like Wolfenstein which is much more to my liking.

The one other thing I’m not hugely fond of is the notion that a lot of the riddles you’re supposed to find are hidden in plain sight in places you’re not able to get to with your current equipment. And not just a few, but MANY riddles are hidden this way. So you know that you’re going to have to come back later and not just to one place, but to most of them. Worse, they’re not all accessed with the same gadgets, so it’s certain that you’ll need to come back to most locations more than once to collect everything. I do like the freedom to revisit parts of the game I’ve been to before, but I don’t really like the extent to which I’m forced to do so in order to complete the game. Worse, by the time you’ve gone back once only to realize that you have the equipment to retrieve some but not all of the riddles, it starts to feel like the game is teasing you. For the Riddler to taunt the Batman is one thing – but for the game to taunt me, the player, is quite another.

On the whole, this is a pretty good game. And for people who DO like the “Street Fighter” style combat controls (ie. the children of the 90s who came after my time in the arcades had passed), and there are a lot of them, this would probably qualify as a great game. I’ll certainly say that it seems to be one of the better superhero games, not that I’ve played too many of those. And it does generally live up to the hype I’d heard about it before I picked it up. I’m having a great deal of fun playing Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is, ultimately, the measure of the game, and so it measures up. I’d give it a B+, but those who embrace the console-style combat would probably be more apt to call it a solid A. Thanks, Eidos, for reminding me why I always liked the Dark Knight.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Starting My New Job

When I finished at my last job back in February, it was my intent to try to take some of the stories that are kicking around in my head and turn them into novels. Though I knew that that wouldn’t happen right away. The plan was to spend the spring and summer with my kids, whipping the house into shape and spending some quality time with the children. It was a busy summer and a very rewarding one – the kids and I did a lot of stuff together and got ourselves on a very workable schedule.

Just before Labor Day, I began making serious preparations to start my new “job” – to begin writing in earnest. I was days away from sending the kids off to school, the youngest finally entering Kindergarten. This would leave me with about six hours a day to write, write, write. I’d spent months getting ready – I had filled several notebooks and Word documents with my ideas for characters, plotlines, themes, conflict, settings, dialogue, and even occasional snippets of prose. I joined a local writer’s roundtable and hung out with them every Monday for a few months. I had at least two novels and a short story (the latter aimed squarely at a particular writing contest) on the launch pad, ideas for quite a few more kicking around, and I’d even bought some books about writing and publishing to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. For all of having been an English major and later an English teacher, my actual professional experience with the publishing industry is effectively nil. Oh sure, I’ve written some magazine articles and I’ve written plenty of stuff for business. I even wrote a thick course on IT Project Management that I’m quite proud of, as a consultant to a local college, but with regard to writing (and selling) fiction, all I know is what I’ve read, and what I’ve read is very often contradictory, subjective, relative and only helpful if assimilated as information that could, possibly, maybe, potentially be relevant to me in some as yet undefined way, or may not end up helping me in the least.

Then came The Call. My long-time friend and former coworker Kathy Mollura gave me a shout to let me know that Onondaga Community College, one of my Alma Maters, was in desperate need of computer instructors to keep up with their skyrocketing enrollment. I’d certainly taught plenty of computer courses in my day and had the skills to tackle this one, so I signed up to do it. That was on a Saturday – the course actually began the following Tuesday. Oh, and Monday was a holiday. So effectively I was hired on one day for a course that began, for all practical purposes, the very next afternoon. I had no textbook, no curriculum, I didn’t even know the details of what I would be teaching that very day, let alone for the rest of the semester. Luckily, I can tap dance (metaphorically speaking) like nobody’s business. I dove right in, created some materials to get me up and running for the first week (as I was unable to access the college’s network during that time) and in record time I went from being Mike De Lucia, prospective writer, to Professor De Lucia, Adjunct with the Computer Information Studies department.

It was an accelerated course – only ten weeks long, with classes that were slightly longer than would have otherwise been typical. The textbooks weren’t terrible, but they were often vague and self-contradictory in places, which confused the students (and me) and necessitated that I practice direct lecture to ensure that the concepts the book couldn’t always convey clearly were taught. There did end up being some powerpoint materials that I was able to get my hands on, but still, creating two 90-minute lectures and related assignments, grading homework and creating one or two tests every week was a bit daunting. This was supposed to have been a little side-job that I did a couple of afternoons a week in addition to my writing. It ended up being a full-time job that wasn’t remotely worth the time investment on a dollar-for-dollar basis. I chose to look at it as an investment in the future – it may be that I’ll end up teaching for OCC again, and hopefully the materials I developed this semester will save a tremendous amount of labor next time. But I got no writing done. At all.

Now the course is over. I’ll finish grading the final projects today, then I’ll enter my final grades, make a backup copy of the entire course for myself, and put the whole thing to bed at least until next semester (assuming enrollment and staffing considerations warrant my return). That means that tomorrow I start my new job at long last.

Like a lot of people, I sometimes struggle with change. It isn’t that I fear it, though in this case the immensity of what I’m going to undertake and my wife’s occasional dire warnings as she’s tabulating our finances that “you’d better write a book pretty soon can be a bit daunting at times. But mostly I just find my mind racing during the lead-up to a major professional change, my thoughts awhirl in an attempt to grasp the complexity of my new role and to forcibly impose order on the chaos. At its worst, this tends to manifest in a week or so of sleepless nights, tossing and turning and ultimately giving up on the whole “sleeping thing” as a bad job as my fevered brow considers every challenge in the worst possible light and then attacks them in an often fruitless attempt to develop solutions that would allow me back into my comfort zone. Such has been my pattern over the last several nights as I fret over plot points for which I currently have no good direction or I agonize over continuity issues that may or may not even end up being a part of the story. But aside from being a touch exhausted, I’m no less ready to begin.

One of the nicer things about this 10-week delay in getting started was that I was able to assemble a workable office space down in the basement where, in theory, I might be able to write a little even if the kids are around (though I’m not really counting on it. 9 AM to 3:30 PM will be my prime writing time while the kids are in school. I’ll most likely need to scale back my writing dramatically when the kids are on vacation or breaks. I was able to get a nice scratch-and-dent desk from Staples for a very good price, and the hiatus even coincided with the launch of Windows 7. As such, I now have a brand new DELL PC on that desk, loaded up with Windows and Office 2007 and ready for some action. Today’s my last official day as a college professor, at least until next Semester. Tomorrow, I write.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Chronicles of Heroes

I’ve always liked comic books. I began reading fantasy and sci-fi novels by around 5th grade or thereabouts (definitely not later, but quite possibly sooner), but by that time I had already been reading comic books for some time. I’ve written before about how I loved to haunt the Westvale Plaza shopping center, and one of my regular destinations was the Stop & Swap bookstore. In addition to shelf after shelf of used books, the Stop & Swap had quite a few boxes of used comics. Among them were some truly awful titles from the 60s and 70s, such as the very thick “Superman Family” comics – stories of Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and, I kid you not, their super-dog and super cat, as well as a host of villains bent on marginally inconveniencing the world.

I’m often amazed at some of the truly insipid titles I used to greatly enjoy – comics of that era hadn’t woken up to themselves, yet, and were often mired in trite, repetitive, unimaginative and just plain awful stories. I can’t begin to say how many times I read the “origin” stories of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the others, which often seemed to be repeated in nearly every issue.

What also surprises me is the truly dizzying array of comic titles I read, and yet I somehow missed the Uncanny X-Men and a few other titles that were trying to introduce a level of excellence in writing and dialogue that the comics of the era were lacking. Still, I read just about everything else – I was particularly fond of Superman, Batman, the Justice League of America, Green Lantern & Green Arrow and various related titles (like Black Canary and the Flash, for instance). I loved ROM, Space Knight and was very disappointed when it was canceled. I liked the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and I remember dabbling in Thor and the Silver Surfer (who was brand new at the time). I never got into The Avengers for some reason, and read very little Iron Man, but I was a big fan of the Legion of Super Heroes – a group of teen heroes from the Metropolis of the distant future, who included a time-traveling Superboy and a good-aligned Braniac among their members. But I’m not too proud to admit that Superman Family wasn’t the only crapola that I read – I vividly remember collecting Plastic Man for quite some time, even though I can’t conceive that I might possibly have overlooked that fact that it was terrible.

Comics served as a gateway for me – an introduction to more substantial works of fiction. I read comics avidly for probably around seven or eight years, but by the time I reached my teens I had outgrown the cheap, vapid storytelling of the comics I’d been reading. True, there were some titles around in the late 70s and early 80s that were trying to rise above the mindlessness that had tended to dominate the comics industry for so long – at least since the inception of the Comics Code had served to self-outlaw such a wide array of interesting plot devices and concepts – but as I’d said those weren’t the comics I was reading. I probably tended to gravitate either to those titles I was already comfortable with, or to those with the flashiest covers (or both – if given a choice between two flashy covers, I was certainly going to pick Supes or Green Lantern over Magneto and the X-Men, because I didn’t have a clue what an X-Man was, but I knew Green Lantern’s creed by heart. “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil's might, beware my power... Green Lantern's light!” See? I still know it! Plus I Googled it to be sure I had it right.).

So I have a fond place in my heart for comics, even if my early love-affair with them was largely temporary. My family moved when I was almost fourteen, and at our pre-moving garage sale I sold my entire comics collection for what I vaguely recall was a pittance. I suppose this beats all of the guys out there whose mothers threw away their comics when they went off to college, but it’s still a touch disappointing. In amongst all of the crap there must surely have been some quality comics in that box.

It would be nearly ten years before I picked up another comic. That’s right, I entirely missed the comics of the 1980s, which is when comics really began to think for the first time. I was inspired to begin collecting once again in the early 1990s for primarily two reasons. First, my best friend Bill had gotten into comics in a big way, and his enthusiasm for them was infectious. In fact, one of the things Bill liked best was the one thing I least enjoyed even after I hopped back onto the comics bandwagon – crossovers. Bill thought nothing of picking up some 20-30 comics across four or six different titles across a year’s time in order to get an entire story. You see, a publisher like Marvel would introduce a storyline, and spread the details across a whole series of individual comic book titles. In order to get the full picture, you had to buy all of the related titles. Bill thought this was great – I thought it was horribly convoluted and expensive. Regardless, I did buy into it to an extent, in part because of a Saturday Morning cartoon.

That cartoon was X-Men the Animated Series, and it was pretty good for what it was. It was relatively smart, its characters had real personalities, its villains weren’t caricatures, and it had a story arc that crossed multiple episodes. It also took some of the best storylines of the last 10+ years of the X-Men titles and brought them to the small screen. I was intrigued and I found myself enthusiastically diving into comics once again. I’ve since cut back to only a couple of titles, but for a time I was taking a stack of comics away from the comic store every week or two – X-Men, Spawn, Witchblade, The Darkness (which was mostly for my wife. I don’t really remember reading it), a handful of X-Men spin-offs (though by no means all of them. Egads! There were lots and lots of X-Men comics back then) and a few others I don’t really remember just now. I still have them, though.

It was at this time that I first started to visit Comix Zone, which has been my comics store of choice ever since. I’ve watched owner Greg Van Camp grow his business during that time. I remember the store I first visited, which was just a straight run back from the door, with a counter on the left and several rows of tables stuffed with comics. I remember every December Greg would have a “Christmas Blow-Out” party, where a large group of comics geeks would gather around while Greg bestowed prizes and give-aways upon them. I was one of those geeks, obviously, or I wouldn’t be familiar with the ritual. I remember Greg’s shop doubling in size as he absorbed the store next to his. And more recently, I remember Greg moving across the street three and a half years ago to an even larger space with room for all sorts of non-comic merchandise as well as gaming tables in the back where regular customers would play various role-playing games, collectible card games and wage great battles between mighty little miniatures. And through this entire time, I’ve maintained a subscription to a list of comic titles that has changed quite a bit over the twelve or thirteen years that I’ve been a customer there.

For a big chunk of that time, I registered my protest against rampant crossovers by maintaining a subscription to one title that was guaranteed to never cross over – Marvel’s What If? comic. The concept behind this title was an investigation of alternate possibilities within the Marvel universe. Granted, by not reading every possible Marvel title I didn’t always fully grasp the full meaning of these alternate storylines, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. In part because most were fairly accessible – what if character X had been a bad guy instead of a good guy was pretty straightforward, after all. But also in part because they were self-contained stories that tended to turn the “known” world on its head. Anything could happen in a What If? comic, and I really enjoyed them. They’ve popped back up from time to time, but the comic as a regular title ended in the late 1990s.

These days, I subscribe to only a couple of titles. My subscription list essentially boils down to “Anything written by Babylon 5 Creator J. Michael Straczynski” plus the Dark Tower series based on the books by Stephen King. Since Straczynski is only writing Thor at the moment (and The Twelve, which is on some sort of hiatus), I’m currently just getting two titles. But whether I’m getting two or twenty comics, one thing is certain – they’re not the same kinds of books I used to read as a kid. Where the comics of the 70s had heroes who were unswervingly heroic and villains who were usually evil for no other reason than evil’s sake, modern comics are filled with all of the ambiguities and human foibles you’d expect to find in any decent novel. And so the years trek forward and I read the stories and look at the artistry as the tales are spun out thirty or so pages at a time, month after month after month. And I lose myself, for a little while, in the chronicles of heroes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

There Can Be Only One

And that one is Stephen Colbert!

I'm a huge fan of the Colbert Report - not only because the cleverly biting political and media commentary is fun to watch, but also because Stephen and his writers are all about pop-culture references that speak to people like me (ie. roughly 40-year-old nerds). Last night's segment on CNN's Lou Dobbs leaving CNN to do whatever it is he's leaving to do was fantastic, as Colbert grabbed a sword and recreated a scene from the 1986 classic film Highlander. You can watch the clip here. It really gets going at around 1:18.

Kicking & Screaming

Despite my fairly high degree of technical aptitude, I’m not big on experimenting with the technology that I rely on around my home. For instance, I bought an 802.11G wireless router several years ago for some reason I cannot recall, and then never hooked it up – my old one was working fine and I didn’t want to risk breaking something in the process of swapping them out. I was, figuratively speaking, dragged kicking and screaming into even that minor upgrade because I discovered that one of the ports on the back of my old router was no longer working. When I got my new office computer recently, I finally needed that last port, so I went ahead and swapped them out. It wasn’t smooth, precisely, but it wasn’t too bad, either. It’s just an hour or two out of my life that I begrudge because – other than for the non-functional port – it didn’t add any new or useful functionality. The older 802.11a wireless standard was fine considering that the only wireless devices on my network are my TiVo and my Wii – neither of which needs to send large amounts of data over the network.

I’m also pretty happy with my home entertainment system. Back in 1998, I went whole-hog. I went to Clarke Music, where they had some A/V experts (which I emphatically am not) and a whole series of demo rooms displaying all sorts of different equipment and configurations. I picked up a Marantz amplifier, a set of Paradigm speakers (two tall front speakers will built-in powered subwoofers, a center-channel, and two rear-channels), and a Toshiba Cinema-Series 55” rear-projection television. This was my first entry into the “home theatre” concept. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Actually, my brother-in-law has exactly what I want. The guy’s a whiz at building stuff and he has the most kickass home cinema you’d ever want to see – it’s the kind you see in those fancy home theatre magazines that are usually in multi-million-dollar homes. Sadly, even if I had the money to outfit such a space, I simply don’t have an appropriate place anywhere in my house to put it (I’ve measured. It won’t fit.) Pretty much the only item on my bucket list at this point is to one day own (or build) a home with a proper home cinema in it (or the place to put one, anyway).

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. My point is that over ten years ago, I outfitted myself with what I considered to be a pretty sweet home theatre setup. I added a reasonably good-quality VCR, and later a DVD-player, and eventually a TiVo (and then a second TiVo when the first one started to get flaky). More recently, I made a significant upgrade by adding an Escient Fireball digital media manager along with a 400-disc Sony DVD-changer. Those two units together give me a centralized menu of all of my DVDs, allowing me to select and play the one I want from that menu without having to get up and swap discs or fumble through a library of DVD cases. I’m delighted with my setup now and I’m definitely finding myself in the position of not wanting to mess with something that’s fundamentally and emphatically not broken.

As a result, I have had absolutely zero interest in technologies like Digital Cable. One of the things I like about my current setup is that the analog coaxial cable can plug directly into my various components – my TiVo, my amplifier, even my old VCR can all take direct control of the signal and “change the channel” at will. With digital cable, there’s always some sort of “converter box” that has to sit in the middle somewhere. Converter box? Hell, I haven’t had a converter box on any of my own TVs since the early 1980s. And I don’t really want one. I don’t care if the picture’s clearer or if I get a bazillion channels (though I would probably get some mileage out of the Discovery and National Geographic channels), I just don’t want to have to mess around with a converter box and the impact I suspect it will have on my setup. My TiVo has duel tuners – it can currently record two channels at once, and all I have to tell it is what I want to watch. It dials up the desired channel at the appropriate time and records the show(s) I want to watch. No amount of clarity or extra channels would be worth giving that up. Moreover, while TiVo is recording two shows, I can watch a third on my TV, and with Picture-in-Picture I could technically be onto a fourth show (though I’ve never actually done that). So my fear of a converter box, or my preference to avoid dealing with one if you prefer, has resulted in my avoiding this particular new technology. Let’s leave that aside then for a moment.

Next new technology – digital phone. I confess, I really, really like my plain old analog landline. I like the fact that when there’s a power outage or a paralyzing blizzard I can pick up my phone and get a dial-tone at any time of the day or night. Sure, the digital phones tend to come with battery backups that can last for up to eight hours. Sure, my wife and I have cell phones. But I’ve been in power outages that lasted a lot longer than eight hours, and my wife and I honestly aren’t that good about keeping our phones charged. We use them so rarely that it’s not uncommon to grab one and find that it’s nearly (or totally) out of juice. So, to this point, I’ve fervently avoided the lure of digital phones.

So tying those two thoughts together – it’s pretty common to get fairly lucrative offers from Time-Warner Cable or Verizon FIOS to save a bunch of money by bundling Internet plus Digital Cable plus Digital Phone together. We’d potentially save some real money with one of these packages, and gain some nice features at the same time. For instance, we pay through the nose for long distance right now, which makes us less likely to make those calls to my parents or to anybody else who’s not in the immediate vicinity.

So the Verizon FIOS guy was here last night, putting together a fairly sweet offer for us, if only I’m willing to make the moves on digital phone and digital TV. There’s even a 15-day period where I can have them yank everything back out and put it back the way it was if I’m not happy. BUT, the guy mentioned that new Cable TV installs are getting converter boxes because of the government switch over from analog to digital. I never thought about it, but apparently my current setup is basically an analog signal over coax that’s been grandfathered in. But if I have Verizon pull the plug on my Cable, then decide later that I want to go back because the converter box is messing with my setup in an unacceptable way, I could end up screwed anyway.

I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and I’m not sure I like it one bit.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Ode to Lost Products

Much as it pains me to admit it, sometimes my sublime tastes are not shared by the rest of America. It’s a heavy burden I bear, and one with a cost. You see, the result is that sometimes products of which I am terribly fond do not stand up to the test of the free market, and they disappear. The great unwashed masses of American society don’t even miss them – if they did, they’d never have been discontinued in the first place. So I’m left to bid them a fond farewell all by myself. But in a way, these products live on, if only in my memory. These were some of my favorites:

Tahitian Treat – I barely remember this treasured beverage from my childhood. It was a deep red, carbonated drink with a sharp fruit punch flavor, something like really intense Hawaiian Punch. But it was delicious and I loved it, and at some point they stopped making it. Well, a Wikipedia consult advises me that they didn’t stop making it, they just stopped selling it around here. Evidently it’s produced by Dr. Pepper/7-Up and is primarily sold down south. Maybe I’ll try buying some off the Internet to briefly recapture my childhood.

Koogle – again, I hardly remember Koogle except that I liked it. According to Wikipedia, it was a flavored peanut butter that came in chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla and banana. I remember liking the chocolate kind a lot. It was made by Kraft, released in 1971, and discontinued later in the 1970s. I want my Koogle back, Kraft!

Pringles – sure Pringles are still around, and they make more varieties now than they ever did. But some of my favorites no longer exist. One of them I don’t even remember the exact name. I think it might have been “Country Style,” because it was in a can that was decorated to look like denim or somesuch. I just remember that I liked them, and then they went away. But the greater loss is Pringles Rippled. They were awesome – I got very good at breaking them along the rippled lines so that I would have thin strips of chip to munch on. They were salty and delicious and they’re gone. I even emailed the manufacturer to register my displeasure, but to no avail. I also have a general complaint that Pringles’ quality control is lousy – there’s only a small chance that each can will contain perfectly-cooked bliss, instead of crisps that are puffy and just a bit “off.” But that doesn’t change my longing for these lost flavors, particularly the rippled.

Australian Toaster Biscuits – I need to first confess that these weren’t actually “Australian” and my wife and I knew it. But these little breakfast biscuits, sold in the same aisle as Thomas’s English Muffins, were so damn tasty we didn’t care. They were extremely light and flaky and had a great flavor. My research on this product led me to some recipes online that I may have to try sometime, but officially I’m still disgruntled that I can’t just buy these in the store anymore.

Diet Cherry Coke – this one hurts the worst. Coke decided that Cherry Coke Zero was “close enough” and yanked this product out from under me after years as a loyal addict. Sadly, there’s no replacement for Diet Cherry Coke and I miss it terribly.

Berry-scented Softsoap Foam – this one is the latest in this ignominious line-up. The biggest difference is that after local retailers stopped stocking it, I was able to find it online. I bought a case. Most foaming hand soaps either smell like chemicals or flowers, and either way I hate the lingering smell of my hands after I use them. This one smells nicely of strawberries, which I like. I’m not sure what I’ll do when my 50 bottles are all gone. I’ll probably sniff my hands a lot less, I suppose.

So that’s it, a sampling of favorite products that due to the whim of the free market I can no longer get. My only hope at this point is to generate a fervent, rabid following for my blog, with which I can influence major manufacturers to maintain support for those products I enjoy. Congratulations – if you’re reading this, you’re part of the movement to ensure that Mike gets to keep buying the stuff he likes. Tell your friends.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Play is the Thing

For all the joy I got from nearly ten years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, there were some things about it that annoyed me. It didn’t have to be so – I could surely have made changes to various factors to fix some of these things, but they were there nonetheless. A big one for me was the sheer volume of work that I tended to put into my game. I wanted to have as much detail as possible about the characters, locations and situations that my players were likely to encounter. This was in large part because I don’t think as well on my feet as I do when I’ve got time to consider all the variables and select those that make for the best, most entertaining story. So preparation to run a game, for me, involved hours and hours of researching spells and magic items, creating characters and giving them logical, interesting backgrounds. And then placing those items and characters into interesting cities, towns, and ruined labyrinths, all with detailed maps, unique inhabitants, and a thorough inventory of miscellaneous items as well as bona fide treasure.

The next thing that confounded me was the running of the game, itself. There was always so much to keep track of and, again, I find I’m not as good at execution of a detailed story when I have to perform it live as I would be if I had time to stop and consider each moment of action carefully. So our games were often much longer than they needed to be because of the amount of dice-rolling and keeping track of armies of enemy combatants, and all the while I’m forgetting that some of those enemies have special abilities or would prefer to retreat rather than fight to the death. I tried to compensate with massive organizational charts and it worked to a point, but it meant even more prep work ahead of time and it still caused things like combat to drag out.

Here’s a good example – my players had found themselves in a dark land that was populated largely by undead of various types. In fact, one of the players had been turned into a vampire and was attempting to find a cure before it took over his mind completely. This dark land was ruled by a powerful undead creature – a wizard of such tremendous knowledge and arrogance that he had performed certain rites that ended his mortal life and instead turned him into a being of death and unimaginable magical ability. He was a lich. This lich was particularly difficult to kill, in part because he had cast enchantments upon himself that automatically took effect as his body was damaged in combat. This lich commanded a horde of undead minions such as skeletons, zombies, ghouls, ghasts, wights and wraiths, and drove a chariot pulled by hell steeds of some sort.

So when my players engaged this lich in combat, I was responsible for managing the lich’s impressive array of magical spells which the lich, being fairly brilliant (much smarter than I’ll ever be, I’m afraid), was expected to use in a thoughtful and creative fashion. I also had to roll the dice for all of the undead minions, for his horses, for the lich’s physical attacks, and for any friendly non-player characters who were helping the players. Also, anytime the players used magical attacks on any of those enemies, I had to roll dice to see whether the attacks worked or not. Lastly, I had to keep track of all attacks on the undead horde, checking to see whether or not they were struck and, if they were, whether or not it destroyed them. In the case of the Lich, I needed to track his health and, should it reach certain points, I had to enact the spells that he had protecting himself from attack.

On top of all that, it was my job to be aware of all of these figures’ relative positions to each other, which I believe I tracked on a hand-drawn map of the battlefield. Each combat round, I had to update all of the unit positions, roll initiative for every unit I controlled, determine how each of the units I controlled would act (attack, retreat, cast a spell, swing a sword, etc.), and then resolve every combat-related calculation for melee attacks, magical attacks, saving throws, and remaining health. It was a flipping nightmare.

And related to several of the above, I had to write up detailed descriptions of the people, places and items my characters encountered. I had previously mentioned Paul Baker, one of the other DMs for my group. Paul had a gift – he was a very talented artist. When Paul wanted his players to encounter an ancient temple to a forgotten god, he wrote up a brief description, then he drew a picture of your characters all standing there looking at the temple he wanted you to see. ‘Nuff said, so to speak. I literally have difficulty drawing decent stick figures, much less anything more detailed. Thus I had to paint all of my pictures with words. And words and words and more words. It took hours to write up all of the descriptions, and quite a bit of time for me to read those descriptions back to my players and let them think about what they’d heard.

Lastly, because of the time constraints and the fact that not everybody plays D&D, I eventually found myself without ample players. Some of it was a matter of people, myself included, growing up and no longer having hours and hours to spend playing. I certainly was finding it hard to come up with the time I’d need to create these elaborate adventures. But finding high quality players who knew the game, shared my playing style and were a good fit socially wasn’t easy, and eventually things just sort of fell apart. The game was over.

Now, I acknowledge that some of these issues didn’t have to be game-enders. There are pre-made adventures called modules that you can buy, read, and use with your players – such that I didn’t truly have to spend so much time creating my own content from scratch. The problem there was two-fold: 1) my players and I had a certain expectation about our adventures together, and the level of customization and storycrafting they’d come to expect was nearly impossible to replicate with modules. My players were used to playing their characters as if they were real people, and I wrote adventures that involved the lives, histories, and values of those people. Also, 2) using the modules still involved a fair amount of prep, and there was no guarantee that the players would stick to the plot devices and adventure hooks that the module provided. If they decided to go off in the opposite direction, my choices as DM were either to bring them back around using the carrot, the stick or both, or to abandon the module and pull out a different one that better accommodated their preferences. Granted, this could be a problem with custom-crafted adventures, too, but since they were so tightly intertwined with the characters I could be reasonably sure that they wouldn’t just elect to wander off somewhere else.

But what I really wanted was technology. I wanted a program that would let me create maps that were as nice as the ones I drew by hand (or nicer) but were easier to modify, to print in bits and pieces (to give to the players so they could only see the parts they knew about), and to whip up quickly. I wanted software that let me pass secret notes back and forth with the players, so that a character who noticed something the others didn’t had to decide whether to mention it to the rest of the group or not (and what to tell them – which often had a big impact on how they reacted and wasn’t always handled the way I’d have handled it as DM if I just announced it to the whole party, a la “Hey all, Dirk the Dwarf notices that the walls of this dungeon seem to be unusually wet.” Instead, I’d just pass a note to Dirk’s player, who could investigate, tell the group, or decide to ignore it completely.). I wanted software to keep track of all of the characters and even roll some of the dice for me when we were having huge battles. Sadly, I never found any such software while I was playing, and still haven’t really seen it.

Which isn’t to say that technology isn’t finally catching up. Behold: Dungeons & Dragons on the Microsoft Surface. The Surface is a Microsoft invention – a touchscreen video monitor built into the top of a table. It’s just being used to demonstrate certain concept technologies at this point – it’s just a prototype – but one of those concepts comes thanks to some Carnegie Mellon University students who used the Surface to play D&D. It’s still just an idea at this point – they’ve mocked up a video demo you can watch at that link, but not much else. Still, THAT would be moving in the direction of the kind of integrated experience I had in mind when I stopped playing ten years ago.

Next, some of the Google Wave beta-testers have found that one of the (relatively few) things that Google Wave is good for is playing D&D. It’s likely that there’s other software out there already that would help do some of the things I want to do – remember, I gave up trying to find the right tools a decade ago when I discovered I no longer had players nor time to devote to the game – but it’s encouraging to see both an integrated computer with an awesome display for what had often been called “tabletop” role-playing games, along with some software that could help put the gaming experience onto that surface (pun intended). Granted, Microsoft and Google aren’t exactly partners, but if somebody can pull the right tools together, it wouldn’t be mandatory that the tools’ manufacturers actually like each other.

Finally, and in part because I don’t have anywhere else more elegant to put it, I give you the “beverage of dragonslayers” – Jones Soda’s Dungeons & Dragons lines of custom colas. These are the same guys who like to sell things like “green-bean casserole” flavored sodas for the holidays so I can’t promise you’ll actually like the taste, but just being able to crack open an Eldritch Blast soda while gaming is pretty much worth the price of admission no matter how foul it probably tastes.

So that’s my D&D experience to date, in short anyway. I’ve got the newest set of books and I’m in the process of growing a new batch of potential players. When they’re old enough maybe we’ll spend a summer immersing ourselves in the game, assuming they’re interested. Perhaps it will give them as many hours of enjoyment as it’s given me, or perhaps I’ll never really figure out how the 4th-edition rules work (one read-through of the Players Handbook was definitely not enough). Either way, I’ll have cherished memories of heroic warriors and villainous mages, lost cities and ancient treasures, lithe elves and vicious dragons and that’s worth a lot right there.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Casting at Monsters

I didn’t vote in last Tuesday’s elections. I could say that it was because I was incredibly sick with H1N1 Influenza and it would be true to a point. However I had already decided I wasn’t voting, even before I got sick.

I think it’s important for Americans to vote, and I think we do a disservice to our country and our American ancestors when we don’t exercise that right. But I also have a devil of a time with the voting process. I don’t mean the act of voting itself, though when I learned that we were trading out the mechanical voting machines that had been used around these parts for over 50 years for ballot cards you had to fill out by hand, with a pen, I admit to feeling that we’d taken a giant technological step backwards in the realm of votecasting. No, I mean that I have a hard time knowing who to vote for, and I have a hard time really understanding whether or not I’ve been pleased with their work after they’ve won.

On the local level, we have a Clay Town Supervisor and a Town Council. We then have a County Legislature overseen by a County Executive. Above that, we have the State Assembly and the State Legislature, along with the State Governor. I’m familiar with the roles, but honestly I don’t know who’s in nearly half of those positions. And I haven’t a clue what our Town or County representatives have done with themselves in the last few years. Did I like the decisions they made? Would I have liked them if I’d known what they were? Even if I had a list of votes they’d cast and orders they’d signed, I wouldn’t know why, so I’d still have a hard time being sure that I agreed with them.

But short of attending every town and county board meeting and listening to the arguments myself, how am I to know who’s really earning my vote? And then it gets worse… much, much worse.

In the last few years, election campaigns have lost all pretext of civility or even common decency. It’s all about attack ads here in the Northeast – attack ads that are so effective, I end up having to conclude that ALL of the candidates are bottom-swilling scumbags who I wouldn’t trust to pick up litter alongside the road, let alone govern me. That was especially evident this year, as northern New York (north of us, as far as I could tell) voted to fill an open slot for a representative to the US House of Representatives. Evidently this slot was a “big deal,” to the point where various state and national political figures weighed in. Various parties and special-interest groups bought hours upon hours of advertising time where they pointed out every conceivable flaw in the minions of hell who were apparently vying for this empty seat. If you believed any of the ads, you had to believe all of them, and if so you could only conclude that these people were monsters devoid of the least shred of human decency or even souls.

But should I believe the ads? And if so, which ones? And how could I know? You could make a full-time job out of debunking each candidate’s claims and counter-claims about themselves and their opponents, but when all’s said and done, it strikes me as profoundly likely that you’d come away with the same conclusion – that most politicians really are playing a big game with our votes and our taxes and our government. They’d almost have to be – because anybody who doesn’t play the game is going to get eaten alive by those other politicians who do play it.

So is that my only choice – to find the politician whose going to play the game to achieve the ends I find most desirable? Should I ignore the fact that he or she is a scumbag, on the grounds that at least they’re MY scumbag? That’s hard, and it’s disconcerting. Luckily I’ve got another year to think about it, but I don’t expect I’m going to like the answer any better then than I do now.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Back from the Front

A Swine Flu after-action report

Back when the only people who had 2009 Novel H1N1 Influenza were Mexicans, I don’t remember any immediate concern that I’d catch it. But when it was clear that Swine Flu was going to strike the US in a big way during the 2009-2010 flu season, I could see that my chances were improving. And when the Centers for Disease Control announced that the first wave of flu shots would arrive several weeks AFTER the H1N1 flu was due to begin raging through the country, I knew it was inevitable.

Sure enough, I spent the entire month of October calling the Onondaga County Health Department and my kids’ pediatrician in search of the vaccine to no avail. Not only didn’t anybody have it, they didn’t know when they would have it or when they’d know when they would have it. The casualty reports began to mount. Every day, my kids would come home from school and report about how many kids were out sick. We watched the class sizes at the karate dojo dwindle, to the point that, last Saturday, my kids were literally the only ones there. An hour after that class, my youngest son complained of feeling sick and put himself to bed. It was Noon. We were under attack.

The poor kid had to miss Trick-or-Treating, instead staying home with me while I handed out candy. Two days later, it was Monday morning and my wife and I were clearly sick, too, as was my daughter. I shambled back and forth from school Monday morning, escorting my older son to class since everybody else he usually walked with was out sick. By that night, though, he clearly had it, too. Then we got the call.

Within minutes of the time when my last kid started to show flu symptoms, the phone rang. It was a recorded message from our pediatrician’s office – the same office I had called on a daily basis for over three weeks in the hopes of getting some vaccine for my kids. And now, they were mocking me. The recorded message advised us that H1N1 vaccine was finally available and that we should call for an appointment. I’m pretty sure I heard laughing in the background, but that may have just been the blood pounding in my head. Or delirium.

That wasn’t the only humor of the week. When I went to see my doctor, he sat me in a chair next to a computer and told me not to give it a virus. I’d had a notion to write a humorous blog entry along the lines of “You know your family’s got the flu if…” but I forgot several of the ones I’d come up with, and most of the others weren’t actually humorous unless you had a fever. In fact, all I ended up with were observations about the fact that it was the week after Halloween, but my kids had eaten almost none of their candy, and an observation that having a fever tends to make you forget stuff a lot (such as things you’d meant to put in your blog).

On Tuesday, my wife took the kids to the pediatrician, then went to the pharmacy for all sorts of drugs. But the pediatrician also convinced her (and through her, me) that as a diabetic I ought to go see my own physician. But there wasn’t really anybody to drive me unless I wanted to drag the entire family along, so what resulted was a fairly harrowing, feverish drive in the dark to the next town over for an exam, then a similarly hair-raising drive home. I managed to stay more-or-less between the lines on the road and I didn’t rear-end anybody, so I considered the whole thing a success, but there’s no doubt I was a menace on the road.

It’s nice to have that all behind us. Our coughs and aches and weariness continue to fade and everybody’s almost back to normal. To the point where I can really appreciate how truly sick the kids were, as they weren’t constantly bickering with each other the way they have been since they started to feel better. It’ll be very nice to send them back to school tomorrow. I’ve got my last two classes to teach this week, then the semester’s over, too. At long last I’ll be able to get down to some serious writing in another week or so. It’ll be a busy week and no doubt a challenging one in various ways, but at least I can be certain that it won’t compare in the least to “flu week.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Boom Goes the Idol

I know there's at least one hard-core Adam Lambert fan who reads my blog, so when I read on io9 that he'd made a music video for Roland Emmerich's Earth-rending uber-disaster movie 2012, I figured I'd better post about it here. Even if you don't love Lambert, you get to watch more clips of Emmerich's symphony of destruction (yeah, I stole that phrase from Megadeth. Sue me. No, really, please don't.) which is, as far as I can see, the only reason to go see 2012. Which, don't get me wrong, is a pretty good reason and I'm increasingly thinking I very well may do just that.

Blog-wise, I've got a whole bunch of stuff ready to write about, I just need to find a time to write it when I'm conscious and my head's not throbbing. Maybe today, hopefully tomorrow, worst-case next week for sure.

Thanks to everyone who's sent well-wishes to me and my family!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Continued Convalescence

It may be that I'll post a blog entry tomorrow, but it's very likely that I won't. The entire family is sick and I feel lousy. Check back in a couple of days if you like - hopefully I'll be on the mend by then.



Voices from the Hot Zone

Putting the swine in swine flu since 2009

I remember "bird flu" and "SARS" being played up by the media as global pandemics that you had to presume, based on their level of frantic attention, would be global killers depopulating whole cities and leaving the great nations of the world as desolate wastelands of cannibalistic human savages. Then they went away and everybody went, "Oh yeah. I guess they were no big deal after all."

We're not epidemiologists here, so it's hard for us to judge how serious an outbreak of infectious disease really is. So in those instances, we largely bought into the media frenzy. It's been 5-6 years, but our basement cabinets are STILL stuffed full of canned food (nearly all of which has expired), as well as jug after jug (after jug after jug... after jug) of tap water. We have a cabinet stocked with "go bags" - backpacks containing clothing, blankets, first aid supplies, and a variety of basic, inexpensive survival gear (matches, those flashlights that you just shake to activate, that sort of thing). None of the kids' clothing would fit them anymore and everything smells a bit musty from being down in the basement all that time.

Yeah, we were suckers. We fell for the media hypestorm. It wasn't legitimate news reporting, it was a sensationalistic ratings grab. And it pissed me off - both that the so-called "legitimate news organizations" participated, but of course that I was dumb enough to fall for it. It was a big eye-opener for me and helped me to finally appreciate that "the news" isn't necessarily out to inform me as much as it's a business that's out to make as much money as possible by pulling in viewers (or readers) and selling advertising. Fair and accurate reporting, if it happens, is just a nice bonus for them.

It was my wake-up call and it amply demonstrated that the mainstream media can't be relied upon for anything genuinely important. As such, my skepticism meter was well into the red zone when the first reports of "Swine Flu" began to roll in back on April 25th, 2009. The mainstream media was playing it up to the hilt, creating a firestorm of attention for this emerging disease. I scoffed. There were deaths, of course, but the chances of dying were still infinitesimal compared to, for instance, getting into your car and driving to work.

Now it's fall and 2009 Novel H1N1 Influenza is in full swing. To their credit, I suppose, the media seem to have gotten a little bored with it, and some of the sensationalistic hype has faded. And while lots of people are getting sick, including 4/5ths of my immediate family (so far), this thing isn't exactly Captain Trips. We don't seem to be turning into zombies and as of yet there's been no more collapse of world government than is typical for, say, a Wednesday.

So I've had to revise upwards my initial "meh" response to this flu outbreak, but not by much. There's the remote chance that my family could suffer severely from this infection, but it's much more likely that it will be a relatively mild inconvenience for a few days, largely unworthy of the initial degree of media attention.

In the meantime, it's not unlikely that my blog entries this week will be delayed, like today's. I'm off to lie around feeling sorry for myself.