Sunday, January 31, 2016

State of the Game January 2016: What's Distracting Me Now?

There's a player in my gaming group who gets maximum amusement out of my ability to be distracted by shininess. He's compared it to the reaction of a kid to jingling keys...

So what are we playing now? Right now we are continuing our Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game. We are on our 7th adventure, though given most adventures tend to be multi-session, I'm guessing we've clocked in about 14 sessions, though the first session was actually a standalone D6 Star Wars session that we ended up promoting to an Edge of the Empire game. We're had a brief D&D 5th edition game in the middle but have been having a pretty nice run. The characters are starting to show competence and we're getting better mastery of the rules. It's definitely a more narrative-based game than one would have initially guessed from a flip through the rules - I'd consider it a fairly crunchy narrative game. One thing I did which was probably a good move was introducing certain concepts like Destiny slowly.

Overall I'm finding myself a bit less distracted than I usually am after a game has been running for a while. As readers of this blog will recall, we're in the Minos Cluster, as introduced in the old West End Games incarnation of Star Wars, but I've been freely altering it as needed or desired. I'm beginning to get a real feel for a sector that is far, far away from any bright center to the universe. There's not been much of an Imperial presence which is why I had some fun prepping our current adventure which actually does deal with the Evil Galactic Empire - it's definitely a less is more sort of thing and it's also allowed other players in the sector to develop.

However, since I recently had some keys jingled in front of me, what is distracting me? The newest thing is there's apparently a move afoot to release a new version, albeit unofficial, version of TSR's old Gangbusters RPG. I wasn't a huge fan of the game when it first came out but I've come to absolutely love the genre of crime during Prohibition. I've seen some adding of the supernatural but to be honest I'd love to just set up a fictional city and go all Boardwalk Empire.

Of course if I were to add the supernatural to the 1920's it'd need to be with Call of Cthulhu. It's been over a year since my last Cthulhu game and I'm always up for Cthulhu.

If I ever were to want to create my own science fiction setting away from Star Wars I'd really love to give Traveller a try. It's one of those classic RPGs I've never gotten a chance to really try out. I'd probably go with original rules, minimal use of supplements, and not worry about Solomani, Vagr, and the like.

I could also go for another spin of Fate. I miss Atomic Robo but I'm really really really looking forward to Dresden Accelerated. I'm a little bit intimidated by the full implementation of the Dresden Files RPG and am hoping to give the new game when it comes out a try.

I'm sure I'll want some fantasy gaming at some point. The original D&D is again available in PDF and I've grown to appreciate the simplicity of the older versions of the game.

But maybe, just maybe, we'll be playing Star Wars this time next year...

Friday, January 29, 2016

I Seem to Have Entered the 1960's: First Impressions of Music on Vinyl

I'm a techie. For my grad school classes at Brandeis I tend to take notes on my Microsoft Surface Book. I use a Nexus 6P phone for that "pure Android experience". I very rarely buy DVDs or Blu-Ray discs anymore, streaming most of my video watching. My comic book reading is electronic, as is my reading. Which is probably why the surprise expressed by family and friends was understandable when I picked up a TEAC Vinyl Turntable and purchased the first vinyl records since picking up the 45 single for Debbie Gibson's "Lost in Your Eyes" back in late 1988/early 1989 - my musical tastes have hardened rather considerably since then and I seem to have misplaced that single and everything else from my rather small vinyl collection of high school. As I recall, most of my music in high school was on cassette tape, with the occasional 45 or 33 record for singles/remixes. And then in 1988 I got my first CD player for Christmas. No one I knew in college had a record player - there were a few CD players in 1989 and by the time I graduated in 1994 most people had CD players in their room but portable music was still almost always a Walkman or similar device.

Over the past several months I'd been reading quite a bit about what I've seen described as a Vinyl Revival, with vinyl record sales increasing every year since 2006. There's been a variety of explanations - hipsters buying albums they never listen to, superior sound quality, preference for the tactile experience of spinning a record. Having saved some pennies over the past few months I took the plunge myself to try it out. I've started off with a TEAC TN-300, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Miles Davis' A Kind of Blue, and the mono editions of the Beatles Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Bands. I wound up getting the mono Beatles' recordings after reading how the bulk of their albums were recorded with mono in mind.

What's the early verdict? Well I of course assumed I'd enjoy it or I wouldn't have laid out the money for the experience. But I' surprised how much I enjoy it. First off, I will state the sound quality is amazingly good - far more than I'd expected. My brother, who is a bit of an audiophile, tells me a large part of that is likely due to having listened primarily to MP3 music over the past several years and I'd likely get an even superior audio quality from a modern CD or other lossless audio such as a FLAC recording. I also suspect escaping from headphones (even good quality headphones such as the ones I usually use) has something to do with it - though it's not the whole story, as I did some experimenting in streaming audio out the same speakers. I've heard people refer to the "warmth" of vinyl and it always sounded like an odd choice of words but it actually fits rather well.

The experience of listening certainly is neat. It made me really appreciate more what goes into an album - how good albums have a certain flow that needs to take into account reaching the end of a side and flipping over. It also makes me appreciate an album on its own, without jumping around or including a song on a playlist. And there's the fact that changing position is a bit of an ordeal. Yes, I could emulate that aspect of it by streaming and being disciplined... But I know I won't.

The tactile experience is interesting - taking the record out of its sleeve, putting it on the turntable, starting the turntable, positioning and lowering the needle. And the artwork of the albums - I've seen Revolver as a small icon for so long that I'd forgotten just how... odd it is. Must be a sixties thing...

Long-term... No I'm not going to cancel my Google Music account. Tomorrow I'll be going to the public library to work on my grad school classwork and I'll be armed with a well-stocked Android phone carrying thousands of songs. And I'm not going to be getting everything on vinyl. I might try digitizing the records I picked up - my turntable does include a USB output. It's definitely something I'll continue experimenting with - I'm thinking it might be time for some Led Zeppelin. But I think it'll be a bit of a luxury.

Oh - regarding the title of the post - I know vinyl records predate the 1960's But all the music I picke up, aside from A Kind of Blue, is from the 1960's. And even that is from 1959.

Image Credit
Vinyl is too Mainstream image from Get It On Vinyl: Debunking the Myths of the Vinyl Resurgence

Saturday, January 23, 2016

You Don't Believe in the Force, Do You? Religion in Star Wars

Luke Skywalker is a quick convert. In one scene he is asking Obi-Wan Kenobi what the Force is. A few scenes later he is looking down on Han Solo's lack of belief in the Force. This got me wondering as to the state of religion in the Star Wars universe.

Let's take a look at the films. We'll go in order of release. I'll be quoting scripts from the Internet Movie Script Database.

Episode IV - A New Hope

In A New Hope I believe there are three references to religion/gods/etc. plus a fourth colloquial reference.

In the first, Admiral Motti is mocking Darth Vader's belief in the Force and refers to it as a religion:

                         Don't be too proud of this 
                         technological terror you've 
                         constructed. The ability to destroy 
                         a planet is insignificant next to 
                         the power of the Force.

                         Don't try to frighten us with your 
                         sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your 
                         sad devotion to that ancient religion 
                         has not helped you conjure up the 
                         stolen data tapes, or given you 
                         clairvoyance enough to find the 
                         Rebel's hidden fort...

               Suddenly Motti chokes and starts to turn blue under Vader's 

                         I find your lack of faith disturbing.

In the second, Luke and Han discuss the Force, with Han referring to it as "an ancient religion":

                         Hokey religions and ancient weapons 
                         are no match for a good blaster at 
                         your side, kid.

                         You don't believe in the Force, do 

                         Kid, I've flown from one side of 
                         this galaxy to the other. I've seen 
                         a lot of strange stuff, but I've 
                         never seen anything to make me believe 
                         there's one all-powerful force 
                         controlling everything. There's no 
                         mystical energy field that controls 
                         my destiny.

               Ben smiles quietly.

                         It's all a lot of simple tricks and 

Finally, Vader and Tarkin are discussing the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi aboard the Death Star, with Vader claiming to sense him through the Force. Again, the Force is referred to as a religion.

                         A tremor in the Force. The last time 
                         I felt it was in the presence of my 
                         old master.

                         Surely he must be dead by now.

                         Don't underestimate the power of the 

                         The Jedi are extinct, their fire has 
                         gone out of the universe. You, my 
                         friend, are all that's left of their 

There is a minor reference to hell in this film as well, one that appears in other films as well:

               The princess grabs Luke's gun and fires at a small grate in 
               the wall next to Han, almost frying him.

                         What the hell are you doing?

Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

Unlike A New Hope, we don't have any references to the Force as a religion. However, we do have another reference to hell - this one less of an expletive and more in reference to a place:

                                    DECK OFFICER
                        Your Tauntaun'll freeze before you 
                        reach the first marker.

                        Then I'll see you in hell!

Episode VI - Return of the Jedi

Return of the Jedi doesn't have any references to the Force as a religion but it does have the Ewoks mistaking C-3PO as a god:

                         What are you telling them?

                         Hello, I think... I could be mistaken. They're using a very primitive 
                         dialect.  But
                         I do believe they think I am some sort of god.

               Chewbacca and Artoo think that's very funny. Han and Luke exchange                
               "what next?" looks.

                        Well, why don't you use your divine influence and get us out of this?

                        I beg your pardon, General Solo, but that just wouldn't be proper.


                        It's against my programming to impersonate a deity.

Episode I - The Phantom Menace

The Phantom Menace has a pair of references to gods, in reference to Jar Jar feeling he owes Qui-Gon a life debt.

                             JAR JAR
              ! Mesa stay...Mesa yous humble servaunt.

                        That wont be necessary.

                             JAR JAR
                        Oh boot tis! Tis demunded byda guds. Tis a live debett, tis. Mesa
                        culled Jaja Binkss.

Later, Qui-Gon makes reference to this debt:

                       We need a navigator to get us through the planet's core. I have
                       saved Jar Jar Binks' life. He owes me what you call a "life.debt."

                            BOSS NASS 
                       Binks. Yousa havena liveplay with thisen hisen?

            JAR JAR nods and joins the JEDI. QUI-GON waves his hand.

                       Your gods demand that his life belongs to me now.

                            BOSS NASS
                       Hisen live tis yos, outlauder. Begone wit him.

                            JAR JAR 
                       Count mesa outta dis! Better dead here, den deader in da
                       core...Yee guds, whata mesa sayin?!

Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Attack of the Clones is about as sparse with religious references. It does have Anakin referring to his soul being tormented by Padme and Dexter referring to the Kaminoans being damn good cloners...

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Again, we are sparse on the religious references aside from some colloquial usages. However, we do get some insight as to the Jedi view on death:

                      Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for 
                      those around you who transform into the Force. 
                      Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. 
                      Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of 
                      greed, that is. 

From The Clone Wars animated series we learn that the Jedi do not believe one keeps his or her individuality upon death but rather becomes one with the Force. Qui-Gon's spirit says to Yoda near the end of the series: "You will learn to preserve your Life Force, and so, manifest a consciousness which will allow you to commune with the living after death."

Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Obviously with the film still in theaters at the time of this writing means I am going by memory that there is no explicit reference to the Force as a religion. However, we do meet Maz who, while not a Jedi, is familiar with the Force (it is unclear if she is a Force wielder or not). The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary does indicate Lor San Tekka is a member of "The Church of the Force". Wookieepedia describes it as follows:

The Church of the Force was an underground faith that believed in the ideals of the Jedi Order. It existed during the time of the Galactic Empire, when such spiritual beliefs were strictly forbidden. Despite the threat of Imperial rule, and the destruction of the Jedi Order at the end of the Clone Wars, the Church of the Force believed that the light of the Jedi would one day return to the galaxy.

Similarly the Visual Dictionary states:
In the time of the Empire, with the Sith secretly in command of the galaxy, any displays of organized worship or belief in the supernatual were against Imperial law. Underground religions spread across the galaxy, to finally emerge from the shadows with the defeat of Emperor Palpatine. Tuanul village on Jakku houses a collective of worshipers who praise the virtue of the Force without being graced by the ability to wield it.


So what is the state of religion in the Star Wars universe? Like I've said in relation to fantasy religions, being a believer is a lot easier when there is demonstrable evidence for your supernatural beliefs. However, it's unclear how much of this evidence is actually known across the galaxy - and it is also clear that even the Jedi Knights' understanding of the Force was incomplete, even at their peak.

How could people in the Star Wars galaxy not believe in a supernatural Force? After all, the Jedi were right there for all to see. But, we have Han Solo, a man who was born in the last days of the Republic who didn't believe in the Force. And Rey, a generation later, wasn't even sure Luke Skywalker was a real person. How can this be?

Let's start with Rey, as she is a bit easier to explain. With the Jedi gone for over fifty years at the time of A Force Awakens, it is becoming much easier for her not to believe. Luke Skywalker being a myth is also fairly easy to believe. First, it is uncertain that Star Wars has the same instantaneous access to information that we do - I doubt one could stream a YouTube video of Luke destroying the Death Star, facing Vader twice, pulling deflecting blaster bolts with his lightsaber, etc. And even if you could, would it be believed. "That image is clearly holoshopped,"

That idea can extend to the era of the classic trilogy as well. It is unlikely that very many people actually saw a Jedi in action. The Episode I Visual Dictionary (no longer canon, but probably reasonable for a baseline) indicated there were around 10,000 Jedi Knights at that time. To give an idea of numbers, there are around 414,000 Catholic priests on our planet and a priest's job is to be seen, unlike that of a Jedi. So there's 2.5% as many Jedi in the galaxy as there are Catholic priests on Earth. In a galaxy with a few thousand sectors, each with many, many systems, some far more populated than our Earth, it is very easy to believe that actually seeing a Jedi is incredibly rare.

And we also see the Empire denounced the Jedi as traitors and forbade organized worship. I would imagine the Empire also portrayed the Jedi as frauds, very much in keeping with Han Solo's line of "It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense". One can easily imagine how the Empire would have propaganda to explain away the abilities of the Jedi as being gadget and drug based. "They were a sinister cult which abducted children and plotted to overthrow the Republic."

That said, if there were to be organized religion in the Old Republic, I would imagine it would be based around the Force, much like the Church of the Force from The Force Awakens. I can picture something with elements of Taoism (such as seeking balance - the Dark Side being the Force out of balance). I'd also suspect that it would not be a major cultural force - something akin to the religious apathy one can find in Europe.

Beyond the Church of the Force, many cultures likely had their own religions, such as the gods of the Gungans or the Ewoks. However, such traditions appear to be more localized things.

Under the Empire, we see religious worship in general was forbidden, a state much like that of communist states. However, the worship of the Force is definitely still remembered, going by Han Solo, Admiral Motti, and Grand Moff Tarkin - and Vader is known to still follow a forbidden religion - though him being the Emperor's right hand man, would you tell him no? It is interesting to note that the Emperor and Vader believe in the very thing that is forbidden. Which is a good way to reduce the number of Force-sensitive threats.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Religious Sects in RPGs

One advantage to your typical RPG religion is there isn't a whole lot of doubt. When you have priests who can heal injuries and turn away vampires, agnosticism and atheism are positions that make absolutely zero sense.

In our own world, despite the claims of various prophets, saints, and the like, we've no conclusive proof of the existence of any supernatural being or beings, much less knowledge of what they might want or expect of lowly mortals. Moreover, even within a given religion, there is a lot of disagreement. You can find the greatest disagreement among people who are essentially in agreement - consider the great controversy in the news as I write this with the Anglican leadership censuring the Episcopal church for its permitting same-sex marriages. Watch the debates between liberal and conservative Catholics on matters like economic policy, immigration, birth control, etc. The Thirty Years War devastated Europe, a war with religious differences between Catholics and Protestants at its very center.

This is something that is rarely explored outside of historical RPGs (for example, Clockwork and Chivalry puts the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants as a major component). You don't, for example, see great disagreement among priests of St. Cuthbert or Mystra. In the established D&D settings I'd suggest that Eberron offers the greatest possibility for this sort of conflict - while clerics get spells, no one quite knows how they do nor does anyone really know if the deities actually exist. Such ambiguity opens all sorts of possibilities, possibilities where your greatest foe worships the same deity.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fiction Review: The Fifth Wave

I wound up adding The 5th Wave on my reading list when my ten-year old daughter expressed an interest in seeing the upcoming movie adaptation after we saw a preview for it before The Force Awakens.

Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave belongs to the somewhat strange genre of post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. It takes place in the months after an alien invasion which has wiped out civilization as we knew it. The story begins following Cassie Sullivan, a 16-year old girl who is on her own and as far as she knows, possibly the last survivor of humanity. She isn't - and she realizes she probably isn't - but the fact that it is a possibility indicates how bad things have gotten.

Cassie's story bounces back and forth between her present and what led her to her now-solitary existence. Given all the previews for the movie, it's not really a spoiler to explain in very broad strokes what happened - though I'll avoid telling specifically what befell her and her family. A large alien ship arrived above Earth but did not respond to any attempts at communication. After several days of not taking any action, it began unleashing a series of assaults on humanity - the titular "waves". The first wave was a massive electromagnetic pulse to wipe out all electronics. Later, the second wave was a series of coastal earthquakes triggered by dropping large masses. The third wave was a deadly plague which wiped out the great majority of the survivors. The fourth wave consisted of aliens disguised as humans. The fifth wave is the main point of this book.

So, without going into spoiler territory, what can I tell you about this book. The most important thing is the main protagonist, the aforementioned Cassie Sullivan. Cassie is... average, for lack of a better word. She's not dumb but she's not one of the smartest kids in her school. Not athletic. Not nonathletic. Neither a super-model nor unattractive. She had a crush on a boy at her school who barely knew she existed. This description might make her seem boring but she isn't - she's a great character for the protagonist. She's kind, she's determined, and rather snarky, with constant self-aware quips. For example, after the EMP hits and people sense the world might be ending her best friend suggests she proposition her crush. Cassie's narration is a great example of her thought process:
She was right. It was totally unrealistic. Both scenarios, an alien invasion of the Earth and a Ben Parish invasion of me.

However, as the waves hit she resigns herself to the fact then Ben is almost certainly dead along with both her parents and her brother is missing. We learn how all this transpires through her narration and it is her determination to live up to a promise she made to her brother that drives her. She lives in a world of tough choices, where she winds up killing someone out of fear he might be about to kill her.

She's not the only protagonist, but she is the primary one of this novel. Other characters are introduced throughout the novel and sometimes the narration switches to them, either in a 1st person or 3rd person narrative, though Cassie does remain the primary protagonist and it is through her that multiple threads are brought together.

The characters tend to have certain commonalities that run as themes in the book. The first is they have made difficult decisions that fill them with regret - betrayals, mistakes, or just tough calls. The second is the strength of promises and of loyalty - it is what motivates many of the characters in the novel.

What did I think? Overall I enjoyed it. For an adult, it was a fairly quick read. I'd not rate it as one of my all-time favorite books, but it was a very enjoyable and engaging read. It is a rather dark read, though not really any darker than The Hunger Games or Divergent - young adult fiction has certainly gotten darker since I was a young adult. Perhaps the main point of frustration is understanding what the aliens are up to. As Cassie and other characters realize, the aliens could certainly have wiped them out all at once. They had reasons for their waves and reasons for having survivors. These reasons are not revealed in this novel. The next novel, The Infinite Sea, does begin to go into the alien motivations a bit more but still not fully. The third book in this trilogy is due out this year and the build-up regarding the alien motivation will hopefully pay off there - otherwise it will be quite the let-down. The 5th Wave is therefore a rather enjoyable read but is also a part of a larger story that is not yet complete.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Revisiting Star Wars (1977)

When I went through the Star Wars movies back in November and December, I found myself frequently offering my opinions on changes from the original classic trilogy and the special editions. These comments were reliant on my memories of the original editions.

Last weekend I dug out my old DVD of Star Wars from 2004 which included the original  version of Star Wars. It’s important to note that it was just Star Wars. There was no “Episode IV” or “A New Hope”. Nor did those subtitles appear in the 1979 re-release of Star Wars. When people of my generation (and older) call the original movie just Star Wars we are indeed correct - it was originally Star Wars.

I’ll begin with some comments as to the the DVD itself. It is not a well-done DVD. It is 4:3 letter-boxed, an effect which looks horrible on a modern wide-screen television, as the screen applies black bands to the left and right of the screen to resolve a 4x3 box. That box in turn has black bands on the top and bottom. This is in contrast with the special edition disc also included in this set which works fine on wide screen televisions. Presuming motivation is always a dangerous thing but I’ll go ahead with one anyways…  My own assumption is that, judging by numerous interviews, George Lucas viewed the special editions as representative of his  “true vision” and therefore was not motivated to do a polished job on what he viewed as an inferior version. While I was able to tell my television to adjust the image to better fill up the screen, the image quality is rather mediocre - at times it is somewhat fuzzy and/or jittery. The quality seemed more what  one would expect from a VHS tape.

With these caveats out of the way, what did I think of it? Aside from the quality issues I mentioned, I found it to be a superior film. There are three ways I found this to be true: characterization, focus, and models vs. CGI. I’ll explain what I mean by each.

With regards to characterization, this is almost solely with regards to the infamous “Han shot first”. As I’ve mentioned before, twice I believe, the characterization of Han Solo seems much stronger in the original film. In the special edition, Greedo fires a shot at Han. This has been tinkered with in multiple special edition revisions - in some versions Han shoots immediately after Greedo misses him, in others they shoot nearly simultaneously. In the original film, Han shoots Greedo under the table. The original film features a far more active Han Solo, one who seizes the initiative from Greedo. In the special edition, Han is lucky Greedo missed a stationary target from under a meter away. I’ve read Lucas’ opinion that the original version portrays Han Solo as something along the lines of a cold-blooded killer. This seems difficult to fathom - Greedo had a blaster aimed at Han and had made his intention at killing him clear. When someone is about to shoot you this is a clear case of self-defense. It doesn’t even enter into the controversial “stand your ground” territory. The gun is out. It is aimed at you. And when you say “over my dead body”, if the response is “that’s the idea” you are clearly dealing with a credible and premeditated threat to your life.

When I refer to focus, there are two things I have in mind. The first is the overall pacing of the film, especially dealing with the addition of the Jabba scene. There was no reason to include it - from the scene with Greedo we already knew Han owed money to Jabba for a job gone wrong and Jabba was prepared to use deadly force against Han. No new information was provided by this scene, no new insights into anyone’s character. Instead, information we had heard just minutes earlier was repeated.

The other aspect of focus I am thinking of is the fact that the original film is a much tighter film. The special edition is visually “noisy”, full of distractions - animals walking in front of the camera, Jawas falling off Rontos, droids flitting all over the place, a stormtrooper struggling to control its Dewback. That's not to say there can't be events happening in the background - for example, when the stormtroopers march through Mos Eisley you see citizens nervously getting out of the way. Or in the cantina scene, we observe lots of conversations happening in the background. But these events were not distracting, they were there in the background, adding depth to the setting without pulling us away from the main story.

The last difference I'll focus on is that of the models vs. computer generated imagery (CGI). And this is the one that bothers me the least, probably because it is a matter of personal preference. While for the most part the CGI was rather well done, I have a preference for the models of the original film. This is probably most observable in the Death Star battle at the end of the film. For me, the model work holds up incredibly well. Yes, the CGI versions of the ships absolutely work, but for me the older models seem a bit more "solid".

What I will say is the original Star Wars holds up incredibly well and it is unfortunate there is not a high quality version that is legally available. While I'm not a huge fan of revisions to classic movies, I do give a bit more leeway when the creator is the one who makes the changes. That said, I much prefer it when the original version remains available, as Steven Spielberg did with E.T. several years ago. I'm not 100% certain what it would take to re-release the original versions of the classic Star Wars trilogy. As I understand it, 20th Century Fox retains the rights to the original Star Wars in perpetuity. When I just went to my digital video library on Amazon I noticed that A New Hope maintains the 20th Century Fox intro while The Empire Strikes Back begins with a Lucasfilm banner. This does seem to indicate that the rights are likely split - but it also seems to indicate that a deal must have been reached between Disney and 20th Century Fox to release all the films for streaming simultaneously.

What I'd like is a nicely cleaned up version of the original films to be available. The original Star Wars was an event that changed movies and it is unfortunate that experiencing it in its original form is difficult to do.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Remembering David Bowie

Toll the bell
Pay the private eye
All's well
20th century dies
 David Bowie, "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town", from the album 1. Outside

One of my all time favorite concert experiences was seeing Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie performing together on September 14, 1995. It wasn't the most appreciative audience. Nine Inch Nails was at the height of its popularity and the bulk of Bowie's performance was from the soon to be released album 1. Outside. My brother and I were able to get some great seats after many of the Nine Inch Nails fans left. To this day it boggles my mind that they missed out on seeing David Bowie live. It was a great show, with a transition between Nine Inch Nails' opening and David Bowie's performance. Trent Reznor and David Bowie were awesome together. My brother and I were talking about it today over twenty years later, how you had Nine Inch Nails all dark and out comes Bowie in light colors as they performed "Subterraneans" and "Scary Monsters" together.

There's tributes all over the internet today to David Bowie, who passed away yesterday after a private 18-month battle with cancer. From everyone. Musicians of all genres. Fans. Politicians. Religious leaders.

What I can say for me is his music - and his performances - brought me an incredible amount of joy. Hearing of his death was enough to bring some tears to my eyes this morning. We live in a world where if a politician dare change his views with time and experience he or she is a flip-flopper. David Bowie constantly reinvented himself yet stayed authentic the entire time. The word has lost a genius.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Minos Cluster Setting Part 2 - Adarlon

Adarlon itself is a rugged, mountainous world. Its three major cities are located along the west coast of the northern continent on a narrow plateau between the mountains and the sea. Adarlon has a generally pleasant climate, though it does vary considerably by region. The forested regions between the mountains and the seas, where most of the population lives, are temperate and quite wet. In the cities, however, it rains only in the early mornings (climate control) and it is sunny the rest of the time. 
The Human inhabitants of this planet are obsessed with pleasure and fun; they play when they work and they work at play. Throughout recent galactic history, Adarlon has traditionally been the home of most of the galaxy's best entertainers, and even today many aspiring actors, singers, and producers travel to the planet to get their "big break." (The newest "trendy act" is a rather awful band called "Boba Fett and the Assassin Droids" and a shrewd trader could make some real money ferrying concertgoers to Adarlon or by scalping auditorium passes for a "Fett" concert.)  
Today, however, its predominance is somewhat reduced from its golden years during the Republic. The tastes of the Empire run to entertainments that are more violent than the traditional, sophisticated Adarlon acts ("Boba Fett and the Assassin Droids" notwithstanding). On the other hand, because Adarlon is so distant from the Imperial Core, it is out of the reach of the more draconian censorship of the Empire, and its underground holos which depict the Empire unfavorably are becoming increasingly popular. These black market holos appear to be the beginning of a new era of cinematic creativity and vigor, and are bringing Adarlon to the forefront of the entertainment world once again.
  • Galaxy Guide 6, Tramp Freighters 2nd Edition, West End Games

Adarlon is the first planet detailed in Galaxy Guide 6. Not that this makes it any more significant, just that you're most likely to notice it. Adarlon is described as being a major entertainment center - not just of the sector but of the entire galaxy. The volume further describes it as a place with theme parks, some quite involved, and all sorts of strange entertainments. It's cities are park-like at the ground level with aircars flitting throughout the air.

On one hand one can go with a Disney World sort of atmosphere for Adarlon. And I've a hunch that there probably is a "family-friendly" sort of park on it somewhere. But it seems to be a bit more "grown-up" than that. My mental picture of Adarlon is a combination of inspirations:
  • Atlantic City as seen HBO's Boardwalk Empire
  • Pamplona and Paris as seen in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises
  • Hollywood from a variety of eras, with a strong touch of Raymond Chandler
I've speculated what Adarlon might have been like in the Clone Wars. In my game, Adarlon was a separatist world, producing much of the propaganda against the Republic. I visualize a sort of Hollywood Blacklist taking place in the years after the establishment of the Empire.

The West End Games supplement Wretched Hives of Scum and Villainy featured the Glow Dome, a major night club. Wookieepedia describes it as follows:
The Glow Dome was a nightclub on Adarlon known for its elaborate lighting and sound design. Called "The Bright Center to the Galaxy" in its promotions, the Dome employed over 500 individual holoprojectors to create dazzling illusions, and its audio system was so extensive that it required four droid brains and one sentient operator to function. The Glow Dome's dance floor, called the "Turntable," spun just rapidly enough to disorient unwary dancers. 
For some reason I picture the Glow Dome as a bit like Hell's Club, perhaps with the light's turned down a bit...

Interesting, Adarlon has manage to make it into the "official" new Star Wars canon. It was mentioned in the Star Wars Rebels young readers book Head to Head. It also mentioned an Alderaan embassy on Adarlon - something unlikely to have been a coincidence given that Tramp Freighters described it as being settled from Alderaan as well as Head to Head being written West End Games alumnus Pablo Hidalgo. Adarlon received a second mention in Greg Rucka's Before the Awakening, with Finn hearing of a famine on the New Republic controlled world of Adarlon as part of First Order propaganda. We never learn if that propaganda was true.

In my current game, I've had one adventure take place on it and am prepping a second adventure. The adventure we've played was "The Missing Bride", an adaptation I made of the West End Games adventure "Abregado-Rae Intrigue" from the No Disintegrations anthology. It originally took place on the core world of Abregado-Rae. Though a core world, it was sparsely populated and it was set in the resort province of Le Yer. It dealt with a crime lord/provincial governor hiring the characters to find his missing bride-to-be,  Brinaloy N'Vaari. As it turned out, she had a double life as an entertainer and had gone on the run rather than marry the man who had assassinated her grandfather, the previous provincial governor. The way our game played out, the characters technically returned her, but only after learning what their patron had done. They therefore killed the crime lord with a bomb and made it look like a member of a rival gang had done it. This plunged the provincial election into chaos, allowing Brinaloy to win a write-in campaign and giving the characters a powerful political ally.

The adventure I'm prepping deals with Adarlon in the middle of a festival dealing with holofilms, arts, and general partying. Kind of a cross between the Cannes Film Festival, Coachella, and Lollapalooza. The planet will be quite busy, with dignitaries from all over the galaxy.

Image Credits:
  •  San Jose at Night - Licenses from - seemed an appropriate picture of what I picture one of Adarlon's resorts to be like.
  • The Glow Dome from West End Games' Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Fiction Review: Ishmael

Hmm, a book starring a telepathic gorilla giving ecological lessons. It certainly is an interesting hook. Once I saw that I had to read the darn thing...

The novel, Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, is a Socratic dialogue between Ishmael (the teacher) and the  unnamed narrator. The narrator is a somewhat cynical middle-aged man who, as a child, was disappointed that the movements of the sixties never did change the world. He feels something is wrong but doesn't quite know what. Answering a newspaper ad, he becomes a student of a telepathic gorilla, Ishmael.

I'm not quite certain how much I should do to avoid spoilers, so be warned I will be spoiling their dialogue though I will steer clear of discussing details of their lives, fates, etc. Ishmael leads the narrator through a variety of questions to explore the assumptions and origins of society. Ishmael's premise is there are two types of societies, the Takers and the Leavers. The Takers represent most of the modern world, heirs to the agricultural revolution that gave birth to civilization as we know it. The Leavers are representative of the pre-agricultural  hunter-gatherer societies. This does not preclude the Leavers from farming but Ishmael points out they are not dependant on it.

Ishmael is further of the opinion that the society of the Takers is endangering the world while that of the Leavers is what is required to have a sustainable society. The Leavers obey his law of limited competition - "you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war." It is the Takers refusal to obey this law, to consider themselves outside of nature, that has the Earth at risk.

What did I think of the novel as a whole? It certainly maintained my interest. Despite my internal chuckling at the premise of a gorilla teacher, I found Ishmael to be a rather interesting and engaging character. The narrator was, likely as a matter of literary necessity given the format, somewhat obtuse, allowing for Ishmael to provide insight. I do feel that the nobility of the Leavers to be a bit overstated - I'm unconvinced that historically such societies have obeyed the law of limited competition outlined above. I'm currently reading War Before Civilization to better understand what we know of such societies and to test that premise.

Despite those criticisms, the novel does deliver an important point - the Leaver societies, as Ishmael calls them, did have far more ecologically sustainable societies than those of the Takers. Ishmael points out that there were some very advanced societies developing in the Americas before contact with the Taker societies of the Old World and it was unfortunate that we never learned what they would evolve into.  It's not, for example, that the Lenape and Wampanoag lived as slaves to their environments - such peoples did make changes to the environment.

Ishmael also points out, and this is something I've read from other places, the work week of hunter-gatherer societies tended to be around three hours. Not a bad life. At the very least, I would have to consider myself intrigued by the premise enough to research if further. Some of the questions I have are along the lines of how much of our technology is compatible with such a society. Could there, for example, be a Leaver society with access to the medical technology we have today? Like I said, I'm not 100% convinced of the premise but intend on further educating myself. Which, to be honest, is a sign of a good read.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Second Amendment and Standing Armies

Since this post has to do with the 2nd Amendment, something that generates a lot of passion, I'll begin with a few points:
  • The Founding Fathers were not a monolithic block. As a result it's easy for people, including me, to pick and choose from their statements to defend a particular viewpoint.
  • In the United States, it is the Supreme Court which determines the Constitutionality of a law. The Roberts Court has determined the 2nd Amendment Guarantees an individual right to own a firearm.
  • There is a history of Supreme Court decisions that many have regarded as "wrong". Many of the same people, for example, who support the Supreme Court decision on individual gun rights disagree with its decision on the Affordable Care Act, Corporations having a right to speech, Same Sex Marriage, Roe v. Wade, etc. Similarly the Supreme Court in its history has endorsed slavery in Dred Scott v. Sandford and racial segregation with Plessy v. Ferguson.
  • Opponents of "wrong" decisions have on occasion been able to get such decisions overturned and one can witness such a desire in the potential nominees for the 2016 Presidential Election.

With that out of the way, I'm going to offer one of the reasons the Second Amendment was so important and it strongly focuses on the militia clause of the Amendment. Let us review the text of the Second Amendment:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
It is worth noting there exist more than one version of this Amendment with slightly different punctuation and capitalization of words.

Going back to the late 18th century, it becomes important to note there were a number of things the people of the new Republic were very nervous about. For example, consider the Third Amendment, of which I believe there are no organizations dedicated to preserving:
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
One of the grievances of the American Colonies against the British Empire was that the British maintained a right to quarter soldiers in the homes of the Colonists without their consent. This is not something that has ever been a major issue in the United States but it was important enough to the early Americans to include in the first ten Amendments.

With that in mind, it is worth considering the fear of standing armies that the early Americans had. While George Washington was leader of the Continental Army, the governors were the leaders of the state militias. PBS' Liberty discussed the differences between the two:
The militia continued to exist and fight throughout the revolution with mixed results. Continental Army officers tended to deride its effectiveness, probably with reason, at least in the early years of the war. But at Saratoga, in the South, and in New Jersey during a 1780 campaign, they were essential fighting forces. By the end of the war, Washington and others in the Continental command were using the militia as support for the regular army, and they were a crucial component in the ultimate victory.
Though the Continental Army was essential to American Victory, many in the 18th century considered a permanent standing army a threat to liberty. With that in mind, among the powers vested to Congress in Article 1 Section 8 of the US Constitution was the power to raise an army, but an army could only be funded at most for two years at a time, preventing the permanent financing of a standing army:
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years

The Heritage Foundation discussed how in the 18th century standing armies were considered a threat to liberty and how that clause was designed to balance the threat to liberty a standing army posed with the need to protect the fledgling republic:
For most Americans after the Revolution, a standing army was one of the most dangerous threats to liberty. In thinking about the potential dangers of a standing army, the Founding generation had before them the precedents of Rome and England. In the first case, Julius Caesar marched his provincial army into Rome, overthrowing the power of the Senate, destroying the republic, and laying the foundation of empire. In the second, Cromwell used the army to abolish Parliament and to rule as dictator. In addition, in the period leading up to the Revolution, the British Crown had forced the American colonists to quarter and otherwise support its troops, which the colonists saw as nothing more than an army of occupation. Under British practice, the king was not only the commander in chief; it was he who raised the armed forces. The Framers were determined not to lodge the power of raising an army with the executive. 
Many of the men who met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution, however, had the experience of serving with the Continental Line, the army that ultimately bested the British for our independence. Founders like George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton were also acutely aware of the dangers external enemies posed to the new republic. The British and Spanish were not only on the frontiers of the new nation. In many cases they were within the frontiers, allying with the Indians and attempting to induce frontier settlements to split off from the country. The recent Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts had also impelled the Framers to consider the possibility of local rebellion. 
The "raise and support Armies" clause was the Framers' solution to the dilemma. The Constitutional Convention accepted the need for a standing army but sought to maintain control by the appropriations power of Congress, which the Founders viewed as the branch of government closest to the people.
...   [B]oth Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike expressed concerns about a standing army, as opposed to a navy or the militia. Accordingly, this is the only clause related to military affairs that includes a time limit on appropriations. The appropriations power of Congress is a very powerful tool, and one that the Framers saw as particularly necessary in the case of a standing army. Indeed, some individuals argued that army appropriations should be made on a yearly basis. During the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry raised precisely this point. Roger Sherman replied that the appropriations were permitted, not required, for two years. The problem, he said, was that in a time of emergency, Congress might not be in session when an annual army appropriation was needed.

What does this have to do with the Second Amendment? During the debate about the Second Amendment, text under consideration stated:
 A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state; the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, but no person, religiously scrupulous, shall be compelled to bear arms.
Representative Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (of whom we get the term Gerrmandering - thanks for that) was uncertain as to if the religious clause was necessary and engaged in a discussion as to the purpose of the Amendment. Also from the Constitution Society, we see him saying in the minutes of the debate:

 Mr. Gerry — This declaration of rights, I take it, is intended to secure the people against the mal-administration of the government; if we could suppose that in all cases the rights of the people would be attended to, the occasion for guards of this kind would be removed. Now, I am apprehensive, sir, that this clause would give an opportunity to the people in power to destroy the constitution itself. They can declare who are those religiously scrupulous, and prevent them from bearing arms. What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty. Now it must be evident, that under this provision, together with their other powers, congress could take such measures with respect to a militia, as make a standing army necessary. Whenever government mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins. This was actually done by Great Britain at the commencement of the late revolution. They used every means in their power to prevent the establishement of an effective militia to the eastward. The assembly of Massachusetts, seeing the rapid progress that administration were making, to divest them of their inherent privileges, endeavored to counteract them by the organization of the militia, but they were always defeated by the influence of the crown. [Emphasis mine]

To be frank, there is considerable debate at this time as to what constituted a militia in the eyes of the Founders, with some saying it referred to all the citizens and others indicating it referred to specific bodies. Above, Representative Gerry references the attempts of the Massachusetts Assembly to raise an effective militia, something Great Britain actively sought to prevent. What I take from this is he was referring to a power of a state, namely Massachusetts, in opposition to a central government - in his example, Great Britain. Essentially, what I take this debate to be about is not the right of a citizen to own a gun in order to hunt, protect his land, etc. but rather the right of a state to have an armed militia as a check against the federal government.

One can see how much more important the state militias were compared to the standing army. At the start of the War of 1812, according to
[T]he U.S. Army consisted of only 6744 men and officers. The militia of the states was called into federal service and 489,173 militiamen responded. The most famous militia commander during the War of 1812 was Major General Andrew Jackson, whose backwoods sharpshooters defeated British regulars at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. 
Clearly this assemblage of militias called up people who were members of specific organizations, not a general assemblage of citizens. The militias were organized with their own leadership structure, such as the aforementioned General Jackson.

Does this mean that there is no possible interpretation of the Second Amendment to give an individual right to bear arms? No, as the Supreme Court has in other cases, perhaps most famously in Roe v. Wade, delineated inferred rights from the Constitution. However, I do believe it to be a stretch that foremost on the authors' minds was the right of an individual - it seems to me the primary motivation was protecting the rights of the states against the potential tyranny of standing armies from the federal government.

Image credit - public domain painting of Elbridge Gerry by James Bogle (1861)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Bestest Books Ever

I'm not planning any major New Year's Resolution to read more - I tend to get a bunch of reading done over the course of your typical year and I'm hoping 2016 will be like that as well. I get a lot of reading done via unabridged audiobooks, either while commuting or while going for walks. What I'm planning on trying this year is making use of Goodreads to track what I'm reading. Hopefully I can figure out a way to link reviews there to this blog.

As I dusted off my Goodreads account I noticed I put a number of books as five out of five stars which was probably a tad overly enthusiastic and I tweaked my ratings. What I might try doing is delaying rating/reviewing a book until a week or two has passed to give a chance for me to reflect on it. Of course that might also make me less likely to do the review at all, so we'll see. It did give me an idea to consider what my "all-time favorite" books are. Giving an absolute favorite book is clearly impossible so this is more a stream of consciousness reflection as to what books really made a deep impression on me and are books I often return to. I'm certainly missing some but I found it an interesting exercise to go through.

1984 by George Orwell. Not a happy book but one that I'm unable to resist. A chilling picture of a totalitarian government that exists for the sake of power.

The Stand by Stephen King. There will be a few Stephen King books here. A story of a civilization-ending plague followed by a battle between good and evil. The superflu which wipes out society is superbly told, with King showing us the lives of the survivors before the plague and making us invested in them, only to topple them over. It's a King trademark and it is at its best here.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I first read this in seventh grade as an assigned reading. And amazingly, nothing, not even a literature class analysis, could suck the life out of it. I fell in love with Hemingway's economy of language and a mundane fishing trip turned into an epic tale.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. War is hell. A tale having absolutely nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the effects of war.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Two Jewish boys create a superhero while they navigate the world of the 1930's through 1950's. It's a book tough to describe - when I read that, it sounds a bit "meh". For me it was one of those books that make an incredible experience in reading. Chabon's love of the era, the subject matter, all shone through.

It's Superman! by Tom De Haven. A bit more grownup take on Superman, taking the hero back to his roots as a child of the Great Depression and exploring his emergence as a superhero.

The Passage by Justin Cronin. Another end of the world story. I'm a cheerful man, aren't I? Like The Stand we witness the world falling apart as a vampire plague wipes out civilization, followed by a flash forward a century ahead as we follow an isolated outpost of humanity. The last humans? Is there anyone else out there?

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Vampires in 1980's Sweden. A tale of isolation, of wanting a connection to someone, to anyone. Both the original Swedish film adaptation and later American one were very well done.

11/22/63 by Stephen King. A schoolteacher uses a portal to go back in time from the modern day to the late 1950's to save John F. Kennedy - as well as the family of a janitor at his school. With a portal only able to take him back to 1958 he must live in the past while waiting for his appointment with Oswald - but he doesn't expect to become involved in the past, falling in love and making a difference in students' lives. And the past does not want to be changed.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Naval Institute Press Translation). This book made me wish I was fluent in French. A 19th century technothriller with humor, intelligence, and an extremist on a mission.

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian. I love most of the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin tales but this one really clicked for me, taking H.M.S. Surprise to the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of an American warship. Captain Aubrey is very much on his own, far away from the British Admiralty.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. There's a reason why this tale has spawned countless vampire tales.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling. I actually prefer the more accurate British title (Philosopher's Stone) but that's a negligible concern. Rowling told an amazing tale of a boy discovering he is is someone special and takes us with him into a magical world, though one with some nasty terrors in it. I'm envious of those kids that got to grow up with Harry Potter. All the books were excellent, but there is something... well, magical, about this first tale.

Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman et al. I don't think Gaiman ever misfired with Sandman but this is my favorite. To get revenge on Dream for a past slight Lucifer empties Hell of all its damned souls and bequeaths it to Dream.

Earth Abides by George Stewart. The world ends. Again. I think there's something wrong with me. This is a bit of a cozy catastrophe with a natural illness wiping out humanity. Unlike many such tales, humanity goes down with some semblance of dignity. The tale is primarily about the survivors and their immediate descendants, taking the protagonist Ish from a young grad student to a very old man, "the last American". It's a sad story in many ways, a bit of a melancholy sadness. Ish and his companions build something which endures, but Ish's dream is to rebuild civilization as it was.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H. P. Lovecraft. My favorite Lovecraft tale about a young tourists encounter with a town inhabited by... things which are not quite human.