Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Murphy's Law: Halloween edition

Holy frijoles, I can't believe it's been a month to the day since I last posted.  Getting our house packed up for our upcoming move has taken up nearly all of my free time... and we still don't know precisely where we'll be hanging out the "Cygnus Family" shingle come January.

I got the urge to post because, wouldn't'cha know it, fate picks now for the following.  No more than 36 hours ago, I got the first glimmer of an idea to write a story -- part sci-fi, part sci-fact, part semi-autobio.  I've done short form fiction on the blog before (urp), but with emphasis on the short.  This thing is likely to end up being longer than a typical blog post; it may also blow past the canonical 7,500 word boundary between "short story" and "novelette."

I've already amassed something like 2,000 words on the outline alone.  It won't let me alone.

Ah, we'll see if this momentum continues.  But now, to commemorate the impending night of the rending of the veil between worlds, let me just point you to another story, this one completely wordless, that I think captures the heart of the All Hallows season nicely.  With cute kitties!  :-)

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Songs of Autumn?

A few months ago, some of us hosted a blog-hop called The Songs of Summer, in which we waxed nostalgic about a handful of favorite hot-weather songs.  I originally thought of this as a way to share virtual "mix-tapes," but we ended up not using that particular phrase because it may have excluded bloggers too young to know about that particular piece of DIY-cassette history.

But, last weekend, as we've been starting to pack up our belongings for a big cross-country move, lookie what I found...

What could be in that dusty feaux-leather case?  What do you know... a combination of store-bought cassettes and mixy mixes.  (You can spot those from their dot-matrix-printed labels.)

Please click on all these images to make them (slightly more?) legible.
I hope my phone did a decent enough job in rendering these crackled gems.  The above was side one of the case; here's side two:

Too many memories to list them all here.  When I was first getting into Canadian prog-gods Rush, I made the era-spanning tape called "Tempus Fugit," but later it got mothballed as I eventually bought every one of their albums (on CD... but that's a later geologic era).

There are a few that I'm a little afraid to listen to.  The hand-scrawled tape titled "Scrambled Eggs" contains an impromptu collection of sound effects, clips, and recordings of myself & friends doing strange things in a college dorm room.  Were we actually funny?  Like I said, afraid to know for sure.  There's also a mix-tape of love songs from an ex ("A Shade of Music"), but don't flip it over to hear what I assembled after the breakup ("Heart of Darkness").  :-)

I tried to give my artistic side some room to play in making the tape covers.  It's amazing the things you can do with Steve Jobs' original 128K brick...

WBVR was the unofficial name of the collection of music and stereo equipment of a set of 4 engineering & physics students (well, I was the only physicist).  The name comes from the Beave, whom I've mentioned before.  His 45's were the core of the collection.

If you look closely at the Monkees' Greatest Hits (cobbled together from whatever we had... no relation to an actual greatest hits album), you'll see the rainbow logo of Six Flags Great Adventure, which the four of us visited on the emblazoned date to see the Monkees play, along with Herman's Hermits, the Grass Roots, and some other 60s wonders.

I thought I'd give you a look at one song list, this from the tape labeled "Carpe Diem."  (Gosh, I wonder what movie we'd just seen when I came up with that name?)  I always popped this one into the walkman when I needed a bit of an optimistic lift...

...though I can't for the life of me remember why I thought of "American Pie" as an appropriate inclusion for an optimistic, seize-the-day-ish mix tape.  :-)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Less Than Favorably Reviewed

A few months ago, the indomitable Suze posted a review of a well-enjoyed movie about which the critics were less than glowing.  It spurred in my mind the idea to take this on as a theme.  Naturally, there have been plenty of times when the erudite balcony-sitters have been out of step with popular opinion, but what happens when both the critics and the public are arm-in-arm in agreement against an army of one:  me?!

(I also admit to almost forgetting about this idea until the site posted something similar a week or so ago... a virtual confessional for admitting unpopular geek likes & dislikes.  So, thanks io9!)

I've got a set of micro-reviews of 6 films that hold a special place for me, but maybe not for many others:  3 movies that everyone seems to love to hate... 1 television mini-series that's thought to be a crap sandwich compared to the novel that inspired it... and 2 well-regarded movies that are often lost in the shadows of even more popular & acclaimed "siblings."

First, there's the 1996 blockbuster Twister.  Yes, it's a cliche-filled summer action movie... but it also features the red-blooded pursuit of scientific data.  Having been released the year I defended my PhD, it definitely holds a special place in my heart.  The film made lots of money during its release, but its embrace of crazy spectacle often leads people nowadays to treat it like a bit of a punching bag.  That's too bad, I say.  The lead actors (Carol the Waitress and Private Hudson) did an okay job, but the real soul of the movie was the motley crew of sidekick researchers, including Cameron from Ferris Bueller and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.  I'll make a detour for Aunt Meg's steak and eggs any day.

Hawk the Slayer was a low-budget fantasy movie from 1980 that capitalized on the rise in popularity of Dungeons & Dragons.  Most peoples' memories of the film tend to focus on either Jack Palance's egregious scene chewing, or on the Tolkien-esque adventuring party: a Spock-like elf, a wise-cracking dwarf, a bald giant (well, "slightly taller than average dude")... i.e., pretty much the randomly rolled PCs one would get from 3d6 in order.  I haven't seen this movie in probably 20 years, but I can't imagine that re-watching would change my nostalgic "so bad it's good" opinion.  Lots of others just delete the "it's good" part.  :-)

Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) seemed to want to be a bunch of things at once.  Is it a decade-spanning murder mystery?  A tragic story of regret and lost love? A meditation on how intense creativity (replete with shout-outs to Rimbaud) is corrupted by success?  Or was it just a vehicle for an up-and-coming band who got to do an entire soundtrack?  The critics seemed to think "none of the above," but this one always pulls me into its gravitational pull when I come across it.

I first encountered Stephen King's "It" when its miniseries version aired in 1990.  I went on to read the 1000+ page novel it was based on, and was kind of put off by the latter.  The author is a master, of course, but I actually liked how many plot elements were streamlined to make a workable film.  (The less said about the book's "ritual of Chud" the better.)  I also really liked many of the performances... especially John Ritter and Annette O'Toole as Ben and Beverly, and of course Tim Curry in a career-cementing role as Pennywise.  But despite the all-star cast, I have a feeling the critics and King fans overwhelmingly prefer the book.

Hmm, I notice that one common element in all four above movies is that the protagonists are all parts of a diverse and fun-loving "rag-tag team."  Maybe all of them -- not just Hawk the Slayer -- would make for good tabletop RPG adventures!

Next, the two well-regarded movies that I'm in the minority for thinking that they outshine the other more famous output of their cinematic auteurs...

Bogey and Bacall were legendary (as were Bogey and Bergman).  But you can keep your Casablancas, your Big Sleeps and Have Nots.  I've seen them all, but I've got to maintain that the real gem is 1948's Key Largo.  It's just so much psychologically deeper and more interesting than those others.  Maybe it's that this one had an engaging bad guy (Edward G. Robinson's infinitely quotable Johnny Rocco) that was a worthy opponent to Bogart's stoic war vet Frank McCloud.  The romance angle with Lauren Bacall was a bit secondary to the plot, but it was still quite sweet.

The Coen brothers are known best these days for a series of Oscar-nominated classics.  Everyone loves Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and so on.  But pride of place, to me, goes to 1987's Raising Arizona.  It soars, this movie; it soars.  It's got tons of clever lines, twisted humor even in the set design and lighting, and Nicolas Cage's most out of control hair.  It's also got acres of heart, combined with a slightly ambiguous ending that calls back to the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end of Joyce's Ulysses.  Okay, then.

- - - - - - -

FYI, I originally wrote a bit more to list a few opposite cases to the above: movies around which everyone seems to link arms and sing Kumbaya, but I can't stand.  But I deleted that noise... the world doesn't need more negativity.  Just go treat yourself to one of the 6 imperfectly perfect gems listed up above, and I'll be happy.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Holy crap, has it been more than a month since my last post?  If I searched, I could probably find myself saying "life has been crazy" about a dozen times over the life of this blog... but this hiatus has been living proof.

Hmm, where to pick up the golden thread?  In the last post, I teased about something Star Trek themed that I found at a New Jersey flea market.  They were 'zines!

I have a soft spot for these typewritten, photostatted, fan-produced gems. They were the forerunner to today's fan fiction forums, and they highlighted the true love that fans can muster for their favorite imagined worlds.  The two zines that I found were from the "movie era" -- specifically, the 2nd issue of More Missions, More Myths (1985) and the stand-alone story The Honorable Sacrifice (1981).  They're probably not in any way valuable or collectible... but this was the first time I've seen any Star Trek fanzine "out in the wild."  For $2.50 a pop, how could I go wrong?  :-)

I regret to say that I still haven't been able to start reading these stories, but I'll post if I have insights.  On first glance, I wasn't surprised to see Spock as the primary focus of most stories, but McCoy was much more a major player, throughout, than I thought he'd be.

- - - - -

Just about any "other news" I can think of to report seems to revolve around the Doctor...
  • We're only a few episodes into Peter Capaldi's run as the 12th Doctor.  So far, I don't think my prediction for him to be all empathic, intuitive, and Cancerian is holding up too well, but we'll see how the season progresses.  Still, Cancers are supposed to have major sweet-tooths, and we saw this Doctor noshing on something creamy and delicious early in the latest episode.  Good thing he kept his utensil with him...
  • I was surprised to see 10th Doctor David Tennant rambling about his love for the almost-forgotten 1980s band The Housemartins in this clip.  (It's labeled a "deleted scene," but it was actually in the episode... just playing silently in the background while he's riffing.)  But, to the point: the Housemartins rock!
  • My son, just starting his second year of middle school, recently completed a Language Arts assignment to write a multi-paragraph story.  He brought home his writing, and I was proud as all get-out to see a developing story about how River Song hid a secret message in the Declaration of Independence, to lure the Doctor to come back to 1776 and fight off a Dalek invasion at Independence Hall.  He even had Amy Pond saying "Oi!"  :-)
Anyway, I hope to be able to post a bit more frequently as the fall goes on.  Allons-y!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

New Jersey pictorama

A trip to the Jersey shore isn't complete without a visit to the beach.

But of course some of the Garden State's weirder attractions deserve some homage, too.

 (I learned more from the dinosaur artist's wikipedia page than I ever learned living a quarter of a mile from him for decades.  I have no idea what's up with that Tin Man, but Jersey's certainly got heart...)

I also was glad to show my son the school where I went to kindergarten through 4th grade...

and to go digging for treasure at the local swap meet,

However, we had just as much fun rooting around my parents' musty attic...

and checking out the local flora and fauna.


A heavenly good time.

FYI, that flea market contained what I think is a pretty rare find... at least in my geeky universe... and I'm planning another post to talk more about it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Project Rockfish

Much of the history of this blog has been about my getting re-acquainted with old-school role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.  I still haven't gotten back into the groove with an in-person group, but I haven't ruled it out.  If I do decide to take the reigns and perform as the world-building "Dungeon Master," there's one aspect of it in which I've decided to go decidedly new-school...

I'll need a computer at the table.

This may be sacrilegious to some, for whom anything beyond "paper, pencils, dice, and the imagination" is no-go territory.  I'm happy to stick with low-tech for a lot of it, but in order to weave a world worthy of capturing the attention of players, I'll need to have a spare brain on call.

So with apologies to the non-D&D-types out there, I'd like to use this post to archive my current ideas for what I'd consider the ideal set of software tools to have at the gaming table.

The name for this project, up in the title to this post, came to me upon hearing of the sad passing of actor James Garner, who played a character that inhabited the kind of world -- i.e., never boring, always on the cusp of adventure, yet grounded in flavorful verisimilitude -- that I'm trying to help build with these tools.  (If you don't know the appellation "Rockfish," go find some episodes guest-starring Isaac Hayes as Jim's old pal Gandy...)

Jim was using a new-school answering machine in 1974!
RPG insiders will quickly see that the following outline contains tools for building a "sandbox" type world.  This probably all could be done with dice and lookup tables, but the sheer number of random numbers needed makes it ideal for a computer.

- - - - - - -

(1) Weather

For each new day in the campaign world, I'll click a button and it will tell me the following day's
  • high & low temperature
  • times of sunrise & sunset (for me only); approximate durations of light & dark times (for the characters, who don't have wristwatches) 
  • moon phase, & times of moonrise & moonset
There will be a pulldown menu for me to choose the current terrain type (forest, mountain, desert, etc.), which will influence the
  • precipitation amount & type
  • clouds (probably only 4 discrete types: clear / partly / overcast / fog)
  • wind (4 types, too?  calm / light breeze / brisk wind / gale-force)
The program should be smart enough to rule out crazy combinations (snow in the desert) but still contain small chances for weird & interesting phenomena (thundersnow, will o' the wisps).  From all of the above, the program will also display customized charts for
  • character movement rates,
  • visibility distances, and
  • chances of getting lost while exploring outdoors.
- - - - - - - 

(2) Random generation of micro-locale details

This is only for when the players are entering a "new" (previously unexplored) region that I hadn't yet mapped out in detail.  If they've been here before, it will still be the same.

For a new wilderness hex, I'll have a handful of input options that specify its overall terrain type, and whether there are any major features (like coastlines or big rivers) in it.  Then it will generate a set of random landmarks, small waterways, paths, hills, animal dens, and so on.  (Definitely will be inspired by Alexis' work, here.)  These are keyed to the terrain type (e.g., a desert hex may have an oasis; a mountain hex may have a bubbling geothermal vent).  Some weird things -- graveyards? kooky hermits in huts? -- may crop up nearly anywhere.

For a new village, town, or city, it will generate some rough guidelines about the
  • population
  • overall spatial layout
  • main products produced by them
  • quirks about their traditions (governmental? religious? other?)
  • notable NPC resident(s)
  • yes/no answers to common player questions about specific types of shops or industry that are there or not (e.g., blacksmiths)
- - - - - - -

(3) NPC generation mini-module

If a new NPC (non-player character) is called for, there will be a screen that I can refresh to get a description of a random person's
  • basics: gender, age, name
  • place of origin
  • profession, station in society, and/or experience level
  • 1 or 2 distinguishing physical features (height, hair color, weight, clothing)
  • notable personality traits
  • major items they're carrying (money, food)
  • rumors they may convey to PCs
- - - - - - - 

(4) Random Events

This is the heart & soul of the program... but I've blogged before about what I'd want this to look like.  In short, it kind of unifies several other existing ideas in role-playing games, including
  • wandering monsters
  • random NPC encounters
  • location-based "shenanigans" (thinkin' of you, Jeff)
  • town/city rumors
  • adventure hooks/quests
  • things that seem like adventure hooks/quests, but aren't  :-)
- - - - - - -

  • I know I'm reinventing the wheel, but I've got to do it my own weird way.  I've already been scouring the internet for random tables that can be used to feed this behemoth.  As I build it, I'll keep a good honest log about where the ideas came from, in case I ever decide to make the code public.
  • In practice, I plan to override these random results from time to time, because there are some specific events and NPCs that I want to make sure the players encounter, at specific times.  I'll try my best not to turn these into opportunities for excessive railroading, or quantum-ogre-ism, or Mary-Sue-ism.  :-)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Songs of Summer

Here we go!  This is my entry in the Songs of Summer bloghop, hosted by the Armchair Squid, Suze, and yours truly.  (I'm posting early, but not as early as Yaz Pistachio did...)  The goal is for each of the participants to post about 5 of their favorite summer songs, so between us we can swizzle up an awesome mixtape of tunes to carry us through the fall and winter.

I wonder if summer memories tend to overlap strongly with coming-of-age (high school?) memories.  I could have filled this list, and several more, with songs from just a couple of pivotal years.  You'll see those years represented below, no doubt, but I did try to stretch a bit both backward and forward in time from the days of Bueller and Spicoli.  :-)

1. Under the Boardwalk, by the Drifters.

I grew up just 20 minutes from the Jersey shore, so for me the idea of "summer songs" pretty much requires something that gets sand in your shoes.  It took me a while to figure out which sunny, beachy song would help me get this theme out of my system.  I could've chosen anything by the Beach Boys, of course.  Springsteen's Jersey Girl hits close to home, but the lyrical protagonist is kind of a jerk. The Ramones' cover of California Sun is awesome, but I only discovered it a few years ago.  Nah, I've got to go with this 1964 classic.  It's never gone out of style.  This is the prototype, the patriarch, the Ur-beach-song, for me.

2. Magic, by the Cars.

Okay, now let's jump into history.  It's June 1984.  Junior year of high school is ending, and little do I know that this will be the summer that changes everything for me.  More on that in a bit.  All I know in June is that some strange things are going down.  My best friend -- who normally was as straight-laced and nerdy as me -- was rebelling against the system and about to go to summer school for his transgressions (speaking truth to power, I still say).  I'd just had my first "real" kiss, after the Junior Prom, and was about to start working my first "real" summer job.  Life was feeling pretty topsy-turvy.  So, when I saw Ric Ocasek walking on water, crooning about how summer turns him upside down... and is like a merry go round... I knew I had my theme song for the coming months.

Twisted, under sideways, down.

3. Rock Lobster, by the B-52's.

Ah, but did I really know what life had in store?  Not quite.  Fast forward to August 1984.  I left my summer job early because I got into a three-week program for future scientists at a local college.  Even my nerdy, D&D-playing friends joked that I was nuts to voluntarily go to anything resembling schoooooool during the summer.

Suffice to say, going away to that program was a defining moment in my life.  For one thing, it helped me discern what I could, should, and would do, career-wise.  That was huge, but it wasn't the most important thing.  It put me in a dorm with 99 other kids who, more or less, were just like me.  Have you had this experience?  The realization that "These are my people," which feels both like a weight being lifted, and like an urge to close your eyes, fall backwards, and crowdsurf?  Down, down, down...

At a weekend dance party, one of these 99 fellow weirdos put on this weird record by a weird band I'd never heard of before, and whose crustacean-ish song I still don't claim to understand.  To this day, though, it brings me back to that time.

4. Your Love, by the Outfield.

I went on to my senior year of high school a changed Cygnus, and graduated in 1985.  Then came college in the fall, which found ways to keep blowing open my doors of perception even beyond what I've mentioned already.  New friends, new things to learn.  And I also had Philadelphia as a playground -- a big city to explore with those new friends.  In early 1986, we got the spring fever bad, and started making firm summer plans probably around March.  I earned some of my worst grades in college in that spring semester, but our many walking trips to the museums... parks... bookstores... oh, anything and everything... of Philly were worth cutting class for.

This silly pop song by a British one-hit wonder band was peaking along with our wanderlust, and I remember sitting back in the dorm room, playing it over and over on vinyl 45 with my two best college friends.  That song (whose lyrics, for some reason, I never cared to think one whit about) cemented those friendships and helped build us into the adults we wanted to be.

5. Nightswimming, by R.E.M.

I'm not sure if I have a coherent story about this one.  It was released in 1993, and I most associate it with a trip I took to a conference in Quebec in 1996.  Ten years after that Philly spring, I was a graduate student about to defend my PhD thesis and (finally!) go out into the real working world.  This trip was to a drop-dead gorgeous lakeside resort (Lac a la Truite, St-Michel-des-Saints), and we swam and kayaked on that lake in between talking science in the conference rooms.  It's still one of the only times when I've stood with my colleagues under a sparkling night sky and talked about life, love, and stellar astrophysics.  I don't know... something about this song just meshes with that moment.

Remembering that night
September's coming soon
I'm pining for the moon
And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit
Around the fairest sun?
That bright, tight forever drum
Could not describe

It's been interesting... and a bit scary... to use music to go deep into autobiography, here.  Apologies if I've blathered too much about peak experiences.  There were of course lows to match the highs, but summer isn't the time to focus on them.

Now, go (blog) hop around to see the other participants, good people!