Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 7th Regeneration of Christmas

The Seventh Doctor was played by Sylvester McCoy from 1987 to 1989.  Initially, they weren't quite sure what to do with his character, since in his first episodes he was a rather benign bumbler, similar to several earlier incarnations.  Gradually, though, either the writers or McCoy himself evolved a much more nuanced take on the Doctor -- a skilled tactician, master of psychology and manipulation, but still deeply caring, inquisitive, and humanitarian.

But yes, he did keep the question-mark themed clothing.  (Groan.)  I do remember watching a few of the Seventh Doctor's adventures on PBS in the early 1990s.  It was strange to see another actor besides Tom Baker playing the part, but McCoy pulled you in... it was fun to watch him do his thing, and it always seemed like he was keeping many more secrets than he let on.  I missed out on seeing fan-favorite companion Ace, an initially troubled teen who evolved into a skilled warrior.


"A stitch in time... takes up space."

"Anybody remotely interesting is mad in some way."

"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace. We've got work to do."

The Seventh Doctor is an AQUARIUS.  I'm not sure how good the fit is with this sign, since many of its characteristics -- inventiveness, intelligence, loyalty, and unpredictability -- can probably be applied to nearly every Doctor.  Was this incarnation also "detached, contrarian, and perverse," as is also sometimes said for Aquarii?  I'm not sure.  He did once try to teach Ace a lesson about her truant ways by taking her back 100 years to visit the heyday of a grand mansion that she burned down before she met him.  A bit perverse, if you ask me...  :-)

From the above, it seems that textbook Aquarians are supposed to be coldly objective, with a sarcastic edge.  Thus, their New Year's Resolution is to get mushy.  No ironic hipster detachment for you!  Letting in more emotion may be messy and difficult, but it leads to a richer and more honest life.

[See the introduction for more about sources and motivations for this series of posts.]

Monday, December 30, 2013

The 6th Regeneration of Christmas

The Sixth Doctor was played by Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) from 1984 to 1986.  Although I haven't seen any of his episodes, I get the feeling amongst Whovians that this is an incarnation that many fans want to forget.  The Sixth Doctor was full of contradictions and clashes.  Some may scoff at the levity of his multi-colored clown suit, but it may have signalled his internal chaos.  I probably shouldn't give him the pop psychiatry diagnosis of "manic-depressive," but it seems right from what I've learned: sometimes he was bombastic and witty; sometimes he was petulant and volatile.

A big chunk of the 1985 season was devoted to a long story arc called "The Trial of a Time Lord," in which the Doctor was put through some byzantine ordeals, later found out to be orchestrated by an enigmatic Time Lord known as the Valeyard... who himself may have been a far-future incarnation of the Doctor himself.  It turns out that the series itself was on trial at this time, since its ratings were slipping.


"Planets come and go. Stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, forms into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal."

The Sixth Doctor is a CAPRICORN.  Some appropriate keywords that I found for this sign include authority, discipline, and ambition.  One possible negative trait is fatalism, which seems to apply, too -- especially to that quote above.  Nevertheless, Capricorns are also patient, practical, and good with humor.  (This is still the heroic Doctor we're talking about, here!)

This sign's New Year's Resolution is to release fear.  In some cases, it may be that all those personality swings, including the brash and sometimes abrasive extroversion, may spring from internal clashes that circle around fear.  Good Capricorns are said to be trustworthy and respected, but that can come at a cost.  The source that I got these resolutions from said that "So much gets bottled up that you tend to lose touch with your need for spontaneous expression. Remember these old, wise words: The only thing to fear is fear itself."

[See the introduction for more about sources and motivations for this series of posts.]

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The 5th Regeneration of Christmas

The Fifth Doctor was portrayed by Peter Davison from 1981 to 1984.  After the longevity and popularity of the prior incarnation, the writers were going for a big contrast.  This Doctor was less brash, more vulnerable, and more comfortable with letting randomness pull him along (rather than having to put his finger in every pie, as it were).  And, to paraphrase one of his later incarnations, for some reason he liked to wear a decorative vegetable...

Despite the Fifth Doctor's casual nature and whimsical attire, the plots of his time grew a bit more serious.  One human companion was killed in action, and another proved to be a secret agent with murderous intent.  The end of the Fifth Doctor's reign came when he sacrificed himself to save still another companion.  I haven't watched any of this Doctor's episodes, but I did see him come back through time to meet the Tenth in a special short made for charity.


"There's always something to look at if you open your eyes!"

"You may disguise your features but you can never disguise your intent."

The Fifth Doctor is a SAGITTARIUS.  I'm sure I must be making the shoe fit somehow, but the list of characteristics seems to match up yet again... "optimistic, jovial, honest, but also a bit tactless, blindly optimistic, and reckless."  The Fifth Doctor seemed to try first to turn enemies into friends, and only fight them as a last resort.  His idealistic emphasis on making the world a better place also seems to mesh with the Sagittarius penchant for pondering the meaning of life and valuing freedom and truth.

The New Year's Resolution for the sometimes flighty Sagittarius is to think about cooling your jets once in a while.  Instead of looking ahead to the next, greener pasture, have a look at what's around you right now.  As with some of the other signs, such a remedy can also feed into the other aspects of this personality type, such as philosophical contemplation.

[See the introduction for more about sources and motivations for this series of posts.]

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The 4th Regeneration of Christmas

The Fourth Doctor was played by the fantabulous Tom Baker from 1974 to 1981.  This is the Doctor that most Americans my age remember from PBS reruns back in the day, with the long multi-colored scarf, frenzied hair, and robot dog.  He was certainly my introduction to the franchise, and the one that I had the toughest time putting aside when the idea of other Doctors was introduced to me later on.

The Fourth Doctor was distinctly younger than any of his prior incarnations, and he had a frenetic, eccentric energy that seemed to light up any room he was in.  His collaborations with Earth-based U.N.I.T. tailed off, and he again took to the stars with his companions.  I remember prim Sarah Jane and wild, technology-phobic Leela, but he also traveled with a younger Time Lord (Time Lady?) named Romanadvoratrelundar (Romana for short).


"There's no point being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes."

"Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable."

The Fourth Doctor is a SCORPIO.  Again, I'm surprised at the way this Zodiacal progression continues to fit with each incarnation in turn.  (In case you haven't realized, we're just going sign by sign with the Sun through the year, not skipping around.)  Characteristics of this sign include "emotional, forceful, passionate, magnetic, and obstinate."  That's the Fourth Doctor to a tee.  Dawn Ellis described Tom Baker as "...a complete Scorpio in the best sense of the word -- intense and curious and crazy-passionate when faced with amazing mysteries."

Is it any surprise, then, that the New Year's Resolution for a Scorpio is to sit still once in a while?  :-)  Tumult and passion may be fun for you, but it's also important to stick with something long enough to really internalize all aspects of it, and to bring it to completion.  I'm not a Scorpio, but this is definitely a lesson I could learn better.

[See the introduction for more about sources and motivations for this series of posts.]

Friday, December 27, 2013

The 3rd Regeneration of Christmas

The Third Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee from 1970 to 1974.  The stories of this era often found the Doctor stranded on Earth and forced to work with the para-military organization U.N.I.T. to defeat the monsters and aliens that were coming to call.  With such a milieu, it's probably no surprise that the Third Doctor ended up channeling a bit of James Bond and Austin Powers -- i.e., dapper clothes, karate chops, and a fancy car.

Despite being slightly older in appearance than his previous incarnation, the Third Doctor was a bit less of an absent-minded hobo and more of a take-charge action hero.  He stood his ground against U.N.I.T.'s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (who would nevertheless remain a good friend of the Doctor's over the decades) when necessary, and he protected his female companions gallantly.  I haven't yet seen any of his adventures beyond some brief clips.


"Courage isn't just a matter of not being frightened, you know. It's being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway."

"A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it is by no means the most interesting."

The Third Doctor is a LIBRA.  A list of traits for this sign that I found online began with the four words "Diplomatic, urbane, romantic, and charming."  Certainly seems on-target for the dashing dandy that this Doctor appeared to be!  Libras are supposed to be all about harmony, balance, and maintaining good relationships, and this era certainly saw an increase in group collaboration for the Doctor, too.

The suggested New Year's Resolution for the Libra is to embrace intensity -- i.e., to let your hair down once in a while and stop trying to keep everything in a harmonious state of, well, balance (Libra the scales, duh).  The ancient Greek oracle at Delphi had two mottos written in stone: one was the infamous "Know Thyself," and the other was "Nothing in Excess."  Libras might think they have that second one covered automatically.  However, if you're always keeping an even keel and never letting the boat rock around once in a while, that's a form of excess, too!  :-)

[See the introduction for more about sources and motivations for this series of posts.]

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The 2nd Regeneration of Christmas

The Second Doctor was played by Patrick Troughton from 1966 to 1969.  The producers should be commended for not just going for a carbon copy of their original star.  The cranky old Doctor's new incarnation was a breath of fresh air.  The Second Doctor was noticeably younger than the first, and has been described as an impish, sometimes even child-like, "cosmic hobo."

As the 1960s wore on, the "history lesson" episodes got fewer and fewer, and the "monster of the week" episodes began to dominate.  The Second Doctor's companions included Jamie, a Scottish piper fresh from the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and Zoe Heriot, an adventurous woman from the mysterious fuuuuture of the 21st century (whose tight catsuits were an obvious attempt to draw in the Emma Peel fans in the audience).  I've got to admit that I've only seen brief snippets of this Doctor and no full episodes.


"I'd like to see a butterfly fit into a chrysalis case after it spreads its wings."

"I hate computers and refuse to be bullied by them!"

The Second Doctor is a VIRGO.  Since I haven't seen much of this Doctor, I have to trust that Dawn Ellis' assessment of his characteristic fussiness is a good fit, and that his "...frustration at things not going the way they're supposed to (mainly when people do the opposite of what he's told them) is palpable, but he goes along and cleans up the mess anyway, usually finding some kind of insanely amazing treasure along the way."  I wasn't quite sure how well the go-with-the-flow style of a so-called cosmic hobo really meshes with a Virgo's supposed meticulous and perfectionist nature.  But other descriptions of the Second Doctor talk about his ability to deceive and manipulate his enemies when necessary, so apparently more wheels were turning below the surface than he sometimes let on....

A good New Year's Resolution for the hard-working Virgo is to take more time outs and replenish yourself between constant bouts of being of service to others.  Maybe learn to play the recorder, or jot down some musings in your 500-year diary?  :-)

[See the introduction for more about sources and motivations for this series of posts.]

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The 1st Regeneration of Christmas

Merry Christmas!  Today starts our holiday journey through space and time....

The First Doctor was played by William Hartnell from 1963 to 1966.  From all appearances, the original idea was that "Doctor Who" was to be a quasi-educational show for children, teaching them about various historical periods and events using the plot device of time travel.  This Doctor wasn't so much a hero or a savior, but more a slightly cranky, absent-minded professor.  Of course, once the ratings for the shows with scary monsters came in, the producers knew that more adventure needed to be in the offing!  :-)

In the earliest adventures of the First Doctor, he traveled with his granddaughter Susan and two of her teachers.  It took them all a while to reveal (or to figure out!) that the Doctor and Susan were alien exiles, Time Lords, from the planet Gallifrey.  I've only seen a handful of these early black-and-white episodes.


"Our lives are important -- at least to us -- and as we see, so we learn... Our destiny is in the stars, so let's go and search for it."

The First Doctor is a LEO.  Just look at that lion's mane of hair, and his often self-centered demeanor.  Leos are also supposed to be creative and outgoing, and this Doctor definitely takes charge and thinks his way out of danger.  (Pretty much all the Doctors do that, of course, so maybe this first incarnation carries a natal stamp through all his other lives, too.)  Other key personality traits of Leos are said to be generosity, heart, and playfulness.  Although he often appeared annoyed and impatient with the events around him, he was always quick with some silly bit of humor.  I chuckled out loud a few times reading through some of his quotes here.

The New Years Resolution for the fiery Leonines among you is to step back a bit and share the limelight.  It doesn't always have to be about you, y'know.  (Something my lovely wife tells me all the time.)  The generous side of the Leo personality should make this not too much of a chore.  The site where I found these Zodiacal resolutions did give the Leos a bit of consolation, though:  "The less attention you seek for personal gratification, the noble side of your nature shines. Ironically, this leads to even greater recognition in the long haul."  :-)

[See the introduction for more about sources and motivations for this series of posts.]

Monday, December 23, 2013

WHO will you be?

Happy Christmas Eve Eve, everyone!  In preparation for my 12 Days of Christmas posts to start on Wednesday, I'm setting out the format here for what I'll be doing.

(Caption for the above picture: "Put your hand in the hand of the man from Gallifrey")

Each post will start with a brief intro to one of the Doctor's incarnations, with a special picture made with a nice TARDIS template/outline that I found here.  That will be followed up by a favorite quotation or two from the Doctor du jour, which I found from the extensive collection at Wikiquote.  My original intent for the quotes was to show how each incarnation was uniquely different from the others, but I think they'll more show what's stayed the same over the last 50 years.

Then comes the interesting bit:  Last year, a writer named Dawn Ellis posted a fascinating idea that suggests there is a link between the personalities of each Doctor and the progression of the Sun through the Zodiac.  It's all tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it's amazing how many aspects line up.  I'll give a quick summary of how well each incarnation compares with the typical characteristics that astrologers propose for each sign.

(I should reiterate that I definitely don't believe in the usual literal interpretation of astrology!  I just don't see any way that the positions of the planets in our solar system could have the proposed effects on a person being born at a particular time.  Nevertheless, astrology provides a very cool and complete "map" of personality archetypes, and it uses colorful, poetic symbols that seem fine-tuned to dovetail with the the quirks of the human subconscious.)

Anyway, since the New Year is also upon us, I will follow up these Doctor/Zodiac musings with a selection from a list of Sun-Sign themed New Year's Resolutions that were posted about a year ago by someone named Sherene Schostak.

Should I call them New Year's Regenerations?  Originally, the idea that the Doctor "regenerates" into another face and body -- when on the brink of death -- was a simple explanation for a new actor taking on the role.  (Does that mean Darrin Stephens is a Time Lord, too?)  However, it's also a wonderful metaphor for how we essentially morph into different people as we age and experience more of life.  The New Year's Resolutions that are right for us in our 30s may not be the ones that are right for us in our 40s.  So, you, good readers, can choose from a baker's dozen of options over the next few weeks, depending on Who you happen to be right now -- and Who you want to become in the new year.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Doctor is my Co-Pilot

"Another Doctor Who post," you may ask?  Apologies to anyone who doesn't watch the show, but thinking about that itinerant time traveler has been taking me to some strange places lately.  It's also gearing me up for an accelerated pace of blogging, coming up in a few weeks, but more on that in a bit.

The idea that I seem to be encountering at every turn is: Doctor Who as a Religion.  More specifically, the concept of the Doctor as Savior.

Artist: Mandie Manzano
Okay, yes... blasphemy on the one hand, nerdy obsession on the other.  I see the silliness.  In my defense, I can point to many others who are talking about it... in videos... in books... academic conferences... and even stage plays.  It's no crazier, I'd contend, than other sci-fi inspired bouts of religious creativity.  Brits have cornered the market on Jediism.  Here in the States we have, um, another religion founded by a sci-fi author... which I shouldn't really mention by name, since I don't want Jerry McGuire, Vinnie Barbarino, and their lawyers rappelling down from the rooftops.

But with the Doctor we have a singular, chimerical, personal savior.  His character was summed up wonderfully by long-time Who screenwriter Terrence Dicks:
"He is still impulsive, idealistic, ready to risk his life for a worthy cause. He still hates tyranny and oppression and anything that is anti-life. He never gives in and he never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against him. The Doctor believes in good and fights evil. Though often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace. He is never cruel or cowardly. In fact, to put it simply, the Doctor is a hero. These days there aren't so many of them around."
I tell you, with some trepidation, that what brought this home to me is Christmas. I know I've said before that I walk a somewhat solitary spiritual path, but I still love Christmas.  The good cheer need not have any sectarian limits, I like to think.  I also adore all the phantastical myth-making around the persona of Santa (see past Rankin-Bass musings here and here).  However, the one aspect that always seemed kind of closed off to me, due to my lack of some specific literal beliefs, is the wonder of the nativity.

A week or so ago, "O Holy Night" was playing on the radio (Nat King Cole's classic rendition) and for some reason my mind went to the Doctor.  Coming back again and again to save us petty humans, because he thinks we're just so cool.  Sometimes being brought back from the brink of inhumanity by his all-too-fallible human companions. And, once, being summoned back into life by humanity's collective yearning for salvation (in "Last of the Time Lords"). 

It only lasted a moment, but the nativity never meant more to me.

So where do I go with these thoughts of a fictional alien traveler in persona Christi?  I'm not yet sure.  In the short term, I've set myself a mini-challenge to post on the Twelve Days of Christmas.  There are 12 incarnations (more or less) of the Doctor, after all.  My weird disposition for the occult also urges me to somehow fold in the 12 signs of the zodiac, too.  I'm planning to start short daily posts on Christmas Eve, and go through the season up to Epiphany.  Being that it passes through the new year, I'll also try to mix in some resolutions, too.  Is it relevant at all to GAMES (the nominal pursuit of this blog)?  I have no idea, but I'll at least try to keep that in mind.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Vermeer's Game

On my drive home from work today, I heard a fascinating interview with the director of a new documentary about some strange methods possibly used by 17th century artist Johannes Vermeer to create his masterpieces.  The idea is that he may have built some complex combinations of mirrors and lenses to project images onto (or near to) his canvases to aid in the construction of his famously photo-realistic renderings of life.

The radio interview is here, and additional information about the documentary is here.  The NPR reporter was almost aghast at the insinuation that Vermeer may have "cheated" somehow using these techniques.  The director retorted wonderfully:
"Art is not sports. Art is an activity in which one human heart communicates to the other human heart. If Vermeer used this method, which Tim believes pretty strongly he may have used, that makes Vermeer better, not worse. What this means is that Vermeer was not only someone with wonderful and beautiful ideas, and someone capable of miraculous compositions, but that he was willing to put in the incredibly intense work to translate those ideas to paint on canvas. And it's very possible that Vermeer himself may have invented this device."
One thing I forgot to mention:  the director is the guy on the right...

...and it was rather surreal to hear the voice of the normally silent partner of the two talk about this project.  It is also quite spot-on for these particular stage magicians (who often delight in the deconstruction of their craft) to be interested in these techniques.  Is it too much of a cliche to say it?  I'll say it.  "It's all done with mirrors," after all.  :-)

I can't help but think about possible links between Vermeer's mirrors and lenses and some other famous optical marvels of that time period.  It was probably no coincidence that the 1600s also saw the development of the magic lantern -- an early version of the slide projector -- which was used not only in stage shows, but also in spooky initiation rituals and spiritualist seances.  Earlier this year I talked about the fictional (?) and magical (?) "looking glasses of divers virtues" described in the anonymous Rosicrucian manifestos of the early 1600s.

And, of course, there's the Glass Bead Game itself.  Although the game itself is supposed to be a highly abstract symbolic presentation of complementary and contrasting ideas, Herman Hesse described its origins as a set of colored glass beads strung on an abacus-like set of parallel wires...
"The wires corresponded to the lines of the musical staff, the beads to the time-values of the notes, and so on. In this way he [the creator of the game, Bastian Perrot] could represent with beads musical quotations or invented themes, could alter, transpose, and develop them, change them and set them in counterpoint to one another."
I've always loved the subtle ways that the concepts of reflection, refraction, and the focusing of light (through those colored beads) could be used as metaphors for the infinite alchemy of ideas made possible by something like the Glass Bead Game.  Well now, I've just got to create the darn thing...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Who nose?

The 50th anniversary Doctor Who special (or, the Adventures of Sand Shoes, Dickie Bow, and Grandpa) was yesterday!  I noticed an old Whovian picture post of mine getting some extra hits, so why not another?  Feel free to discuss speculations and spoilers, sweeties, in the comments.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Alpha-Bytes: the Deseret alphabet

It's been a while since I've done one of these posts about my favorite weird alphabets and languages.  Today I'm thinking about a fascinating bit of 19th century American history: the Deseret Alphabet of Brigham Young and the early Mormon community.

This says "Holiness to the Lord"
The reasons why this religious leader decided to promulgate a new alphabet aren't universally agreed upon.  Young did state that a main goal of this project was to simplify written English and save schoolchildren years of anguish learning to spell.  He wasn't alone, of course; see my earlier post on various attempts at orthographic reform that kept on chugging through the 20th century.  However, some also believe this alphabet was an attempt to set apart the new Mormon community from the rest of mundane America.

Click to be magnified
The Deseret alphabet only really lasted a few decades as a major "supported feature" of Utah Mormonism.  After Brigham Young's death in 1877 it quickly faded into history. The letters have a kind of an ornate beauty to them, but they may be a tad too complicated for their own good.  Still, like many other obscure interests, our lovely inter webby super highway has brought together its fans and energized its community.

As an eternal searcher in realms spiritual, I sometimes get a bit jealous of groups like Mormonism that set themselves apart and live a life so full of symbolism and meaning.  To be clear, I'm not eager for someone to spoon-feed me my beliefs, but the idea of living within an ornate surreality (see here for more thoughts on that word), decorated with such a rich interior design of ideas, has a strong pull.  In some ways, I already do that with the concepts of Thelema and Hermetic Kabbalah, but I don't tend to identify with many of the actual people who work with those ideas.  The surreality is built more strongly in like-minded community, I suppose.

Oh well, there are plenty of other communities... family, professional, and blogospheric... they're sometimes too much for me to handle already... why would I want to add something else?  :-)

FYI, the next few weeks will be filled with hectic travel for me, so posting may be sparser than usual.  Best wishes to all as we head into the dark days of winter!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Good at night

On Day 24 of my accelerated stroll through the 30 Songs in 30 Days challenge, I mentioned an important song for which I couldn't find a good link.  Well, if you can't hear it, you can at least read the lyrics.  (Hmm... it's weird. As I read the words with my eyes, they kind of seem a bit boastful... but that's the complete opposite of the feeling you get when listening.)

Anyway, off John Gorka's 1991 album "Jack's Crows," here's "Good."

I am good at dreams
I am good at dreams
Bad at savings bonds;
Fashion magazines
I am good at dreams
I am good at dreams

I am good at night
I am good at night
Sun don't fit me right
I tried with all my might
I am good at night
I am good at night

I am good at stars
I am good at skies
Not like other guys
I am good at skies
I could close my eyes
I could be your size
I would still be good at skies

I am good at wind
I am good at stone
I am good at rain
Good at all alone
I am good at you
And good at home

I am good at night
I am good at night
Sun don't fit me right
I tried with all my might
I am good at night
I am good at night

I am good at dreams
I am good at dreams
I am good at night
I am good at night.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Space: Above and Beyond

"Courage. Honor. Dedication. Sacrifice. These are just the words they used to get you here. Now the only word that means a damn to you is life -- yours, your buddy's. The one certainty in war is that in an hour, maybe two, you'll either still be alive or you'll be dead.  For the next hour, here's your best chance of staying alive."

I forget if I've talked about my family's tradition of watching some good (or bad) sci-fi on the weekends.  Last week we finished going through the full set of David Tennant's run as the 10th Doctor.  This weekend we started something a bit different.

Space: Above and Beyond was a science fiction TV series that ran from 1995 to 1996.  Yup, just one season.  But what a season!  This show is typically in top-ten lists of "awesome shows that were cancelled before their time."  It was created by Glen Morgan and James Wong, two guys that started out writing some of the best early episodes of the X-Files, and then were given the chance to create their own show for Fox in the mid-90s.

My wife and I enjoyed this show at the time it first aired, and we were disappointed at its cancellation.  Watching the pilot again today, we were pleased at how much held up.  The characters remain engaging, the special effects aren't too clunky, and the patented Morgan-Wong monologues still have the ability to tug at the heart strings.  (They must have been big fans of classic American theater... Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and so on... They put in at least 2 or 3 identifiable bits of eloquent speechifyin' per episode.  For a show about war, love, and loss, it works.)  Our boy really enjoyed it, too.

The show follows the path of five fresh lieutenants, space marines in the year 2063, who happened to join up right as humankind happens to discover that, no, we are not alone.  In the wake of a horrific series of Pearl Harbor type alien attacks, they have to finish their training fast and head to the front lines.  There they meet the 6th main member of the cast (and fan favorite), Colonel T. C. McQueen, a battle-hardened vet who gave the speech I quoted above.  The actor who portrayed him may share the same name as a famous mojo-risin' lizard king, but he's all about the gravitas, with a cauldron of emotion simmering under the surface.  Back in the 90s, we were hooked by the plot and effects, but we kept on watching for him.

We'll be going through this wonderful old show over the next 20 or so weekends.  I can't promise to review every single episode, but I'll pop in with thoughts as I have them.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

30 Songs in 1 Day

I just learned of this challenge from seeing it on Michelle's blog.  Great timing, me.  The month is just about over.  Oh well, I thought I'd catch up with it in one mega-post.

The deal is to think of 30 songs that address a range of questions... most of which, I think, are meant to help uncover the real you.  Do they really?  Aw, who cares, I had fun doing it.  Apologies for taking a pass on some of the questions, and for not linking every song to a place where you can listen to it.  It may have been fun, but I didn't have a ton of time...

Day 01 – Your favorite song

This normally would have me scratching my head, what with all the decades and genres of good stuff out there.  But this was asked before, and I happily settled on Rush's Closer to the Heart.  (The link takes you to an extended concert version... the only way to fly.)

Day 02 – Your least favorite song

Yikes, that's difficult.  For years I hated the Beatles' Wild Honey Pie, because I thought it was John viciously mocking Paul's Honey Pie.  However, it really was Paul making goofy fun of himself!

Okay, I'm going to be controversial here:  I'm no longer a fan of Pink Floyd's Time, from Dark Side of the Moon.  I admit that it's a classic, quality piece of songwriting.  But the way I interpret the lyrics, there's a deep black core of nihilism at the center of this thing.  Every year older that I get, I want to fight against such pessimism more and more, and with everything I've got.

Day 03 – A song that makes you happy

Ah, good.  Something more uplifting.  Can anyone listen to Supertramp's Give A Little Bit and not have their mood instantly boosted into the stratosphere?

Day 04 – A song that makes you sad

Blegh.  There are too many of those.  The first thing that comes to mind is that the sax solo in Springsteen's Jungleland sounds so much sadder since we lost the Big Man.

Day 05 – A song that reminds you of someone

Billy Joel's The Longest Time.

Day 06 – A song that reminds you of somewhere

The Outfield's Your Love is psychically connected to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station in the spring of 1986.  So you get a "somewhere" and a "somewhen" all tangled up in a wibbly-wobbly ball.

Day 07 – A song that reminds you of a certain event

Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down serves a doubly sad duty.  Its original release in 1989 seemed timed to be the soundtrack of the Tienanmen Square student protest and crackdown.  Later, it gave voice to my feelings about another event.

Day 08 – A song that you know all the words to

Putting aside Rush (since so many of Neil Peart's lyrics have been weaved into my DNA), I'd like to say something morally uplifting like Queen's Under Pressure.  However, I think I'd score a B- to C+ if I was tested on it.  Groan, I've got to admit that one I'd probably do really well on is AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long.

Day 09 – A song that you can dance to

If anyone has footage of myself and friends in college dancing around to the Housemartins' weird anthem Me and the Farmer, I'll pay dearly for its destruction.

Day 10 – A song that makes you fall asleep

I'm not sure if it's ever actually caused me to lose consciousness, but I think the most soothing, calming song in all of existence is the Fleetwoods' Come Softly To Me.  (Thanks, Libby.)

Day 11 – A song from your favorite band

Haven't I talked enough about those three guys from Willowdale?

Day 12 – A song from a band you hate

Gosh, there may be plenty of songs that I just can't stand, but I can't think of a band or artist that I'd put into that category.  Even the ones I think are politically stupid are just doing what they think is right.

Day 13 – A song that is a guilty pleasure

I have no idea why, but... Kid Rock's Wasting Time.

Day 14 – A song that no one would expect you to love

See above?  :-)  

Day 15 – A song that describes you

I've been answering these out of order, so #24 below covers my first choice(s).

Day 16 – A song that you used to love but now hate

Back to Rush (sort of), so we're not really talking hatred, here.  But I often get annoyed with radio program directors, whose knowledge of this band seems to begin and end with the same song: their biggest hit, Tom Sawyer.  Whenever I hear it on the radio these days I end up switching stations.

HOWEVER, a few years ago, I heard a remix of it (from the soundtrack a movie called "Small Soldiers") that blew me away and breathed new life into this song for me.  So I went from love to hate, then back around to love again.  :-)

Day 17 – A song that you hear often on the radio

I came up with a short list of overplayed finalists yesterday, and I decided to let fate decide the winner.  The next one I heard on the radio would be the one.  The very next time I got in the car, to pick up my son from karate, I heard one of them right away:  Jimi Hendrix's version of All Along the Watchtower.

But guess what?  Not so overplayed, because I listened through the whole thing.  Still a damn good song.

Day 18 – A song that you wish you heard on the radio

No one ever seems to play ELO's Hold On Tight (To Your Dreams) any more.

Day 19 – A song from your favorite album

V is for Vienna.

Day 20 – A song that you listen to when you’re angry

I guess I don't tend to plug in to music when I'm angry.  But if you want to channel your anger into personal power, you can't go wrong with Pink's So What.

Day 21 – A song that you listen to when you’re happy

Again, I don't think I run for the MP3 player when I'm feeling a strong emotion.  In the past, though, I was known to cycle through Van Morrison's Jackie Wilson Said, over and over, when feeling in an exuberant mood.

Day 22 – A song that you listen to when you’re sad

If I see myself start to wallow, I do my darndest to snap out of it.  Exercise, fueled by up-tempo stuff on my MP3 player, can sometimes do the trick.  No one specific song, though.

Day 23 – A song that you want to play at your wedding

We didn't do the big catered shin-dig... no band or DJ.  Just the ceremony on a Saturday (with 6 or 7 people in attendance), then the party the next day -- a backyard gathering of about 30 to 40 people -- with somebody's boombox playing in the background.  I guess I wish we'd squeezed in Bill Withers' Lean on Me at some point, but the occasion was pretty much perfect none the less.

Day 24 – A song that you want to play at your funeral

There are two that I can't decide between.  Both are by the same artist, and they share a word in their titles.  John Gorka wrote a song called "Good" in 1991, and then a song called "Good Noise" in 1994.  They're very different songs, but I'd like to think their intersection defines the person that I'd like to be remembered as being.  (Hm... Youtube doesn't seem to have "Good."  I may have to post some lyrics.)

Day 25 – A song that makes you laugh

Do parodies count?  (best line: coffee table)

Day 26 – A song that you can play on an instrument

Nope... I don't think I could even do Chopsticks correctly at this point.  :-)

Day 27 – A song that you wish you could play

Journey's Don't Stop Believin.  (Piano intro only)  :-)

Day 28 – A song that makes you feel guilty

The Eagles' Hotel California.  Ain't ever telling the story behind thaaaaat.

Day 29 – A song from your childhood

10cc's The Things We Do For Love was freakin' everywhere.

Day 30 – Your favorite song at this time last year

Ha!  I can actually check to see what I added to my electronic storehouse about one year ago, can't I?   The closest match in time is Prince's Kiss.  (Gotta love how he drops the falsetto at the end, right?)  If you limit it to new songs, then Muse's Madness.

Rock on!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Lost Worlds of 2001

The back cover of my copy of Arthur C. Clarke's 1972 memoir The Lost Worlds of 2001 contains the following blurb:


Yes sir, this was the late sixties / early seventies, all right.

This book is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the famed 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  A book like that, in itself, wouldn't be so unique, but I don't know if a book like this could be written about any other movie.  It contains some of Clarke's short stories that inspired the plot, entries from his writing journal, a bunch of unused chapters from his 1968 novel of the movie (with very different versions of events), and some interesting personal reminiscences about director Stanley Kubrick.

I hadn't appreciated the true nature of the multi-year back-and-forth creative process that went on between Clarke and Kubrick to make this combined... thing.  (Wikipedia calls it a "science fiction narrative" to convey the intertwined nature of the movie and novel.)  I had it in my mind that Clarke's novel was kind of written "on spec" and Kubrick was calling all the phantasmagorical shots.  In reality, it was a fascinating, tumultuous two-way collaboration.  Early on, they planned essentially for the movie to say "directed by Kubrick and Clarke" and the novel to say "written by Clarke and Kubrick."  (The lawyers didn't let them.)  The initial impetus, though, was Kubrick's.  According to Clarke,
"He [Kubrick] wanted to make a movie about Man's relation to the universe -- something which had never been attempted, still less achieved, in the history of motion pictures. Of course, there had been innumerable 'space' movies, most of them trash. Even the few that had been made with some skill and accuracy had been rather simpleminded, concerned more with the schoolboy excitement of space flight than its profound implications to society, philosophy, and religion."
My own history with 2001 is kind of strange... I read the novel, and did a middle school book report on it in 1978, prior to ever seeing the whole movie.  It was never about the phantasmagoria for me -- the novel explained many things that the movie left ambiguous and trippy.  Even the final "beyond the infinite" part was set in my mind as strange sci-fi, but still solidly in the realm of "this could someday happen."

That brings me to the unused chapters from Clarke's novel, which take up much of the real estate in Lost Worlds.  Like I said, the final version of the 1968 novel explained a lot more than the movie.  These "lost" chapters go even further to reveal much more about the plans and motivations of the aliens that make contact with early hominids, then wait patiently for us to catch up.  We often see events through their eyes.

I've got to say, though, that I was kind of surprised that the unused chapters felt so, well, 1950s-ish.  Is that a word?  Sci-fi readers will get my drift.  The aliens who sent the monolith were humanoid.  The astronauts were all standard issue scientist-heroes, smoking pipes and twirling ladies on the dance floor, prior to setting off in the Discovery.  HAL-9000 was a robot.  It was kind of amazing that Clarke, a leader in the sci-fi community, started out this project with such a hokey take on the material -- especially when so much New Wave experimentation was being done at the time by his colleagues.  It was even more amazing that such a counter-cultural masterpiece of a film eventually came out of it.  (Clarke kind of blamed a lot of the trippiness on the art department!)

Anyway, even though I'm glad that all the extra explanation and tired tropes were eventually pared away, it was fascinating to get such a complete and intimate peek at the origins of this classic story.

Oh, and that 1978 book report?  It was accompanied by a presentation at a school book fair.  Don't believe me, do you...?

Note, both in the poster behind me and on the table in front of me, that we "updated" the Pan Am space clipper from the movie to the real Space Shuttle that was just a couple of years away from its first launch.  No 60s nostalgia there!  :-)

- - - - - - -

Pleae go even further beyond the infinite to visit the other blogs participating in this month's Cephalopod Coffeehouse!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Meaning of Liff

I'm thoroughly enjoying the book that I'll be reviewing for Squid-man's Cephalopod Coffeehouse next week.  While reading, my eyes stopped on a short snippet that probably won't make it into my review, but I wanted to explore it a bit anyway.  While still keeping the identity of the book secret, I can share that isolated sentence:
"Only a space-faring culture could truly transcend its environment, and join others in giving a purpose to creation."
I'm sure I've talked about that first part before -- i.e., my hope that humanity will indeed follow this path and at least make the attempt to seed ourselves elsewhere.  It's the second part that struck me, though.  "Giving a purpose to creation."  It implies that there is no imposed, absolute purpose to creation, and we have to do that job ourselves.  Certainly not a new idea...

But it's still controversial.  On the surface, it seems to disagree with most established religions, which come packaged with tons of absolute purpose.  I really don't think there needs to be a contradiction, though.  With just a bit of leeway, the process of figuring out your purpose maps pretty cleanly onto the idea of "discovering God's plan for your life."  Much like the idea of natural rights in law, the details about who or where or whence it comes from don't seem so important in the end.  The key part is that your purpose isn't handed to you by other people.  It's your birthright to discover and follow, all by your lonesome.

On a whim, I wandered a bit through Wikipedia's article on The Meaning of Life and found several close parallels to the above ideas.  Like I said, not new.  :-)  That article didn't mention Crowley's Thelema, though, which apotheosizes the phrase "Do What Thou Wilt."  The twist is that you've got to think reeeally hard about what your true will is, and you'll eventually find that it's best when tempered with love.  It ends up being deeper and more subtle than something you can articulate into a few sentences, though trying to do that is helpful.  Sometimes, experience and hindsight helps you see it more clearly than anything else.

As I read over the above, it kind of sounds like I have it all figured out in my own case, doesn't it?  Nope!  :-)  But I do try to keep my compass needle pointed in the right direction with some prayer-like words.  A Thelemic colleague of mine came up with the following four aspirational phrases that occasionally pass through my brain...

Lead me to the Light of my true will.
Strengthen me to embrace every experience of Life.
Fulfill me in the rapture of thy Love.
Awaken me to the knowledge of Liberty.

I've got to say, though, that since I'm not sure to whom I'd be addressing these words, I don't use them all that frequently.  Something that feels more natural to me is the following, which I pieced together from several different ideas, starting with the Buddhist concept of dedication of merit:

May all be loved.
May all find liberty.
May all become co-creators of the cosmos.

That covers all the bases, doesn't it?  :-)

- - - - -

Postscript:  I wanted to squeeze in a reference to Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy somewhere, but didn't manage it.  Also, for completeness, the title refers to this and the image to this.

Post-postscript, 10/20:  As I reread my final prayer after thinking about Squid's recent post on the plight of the Palestinians, I'm thinking... #FirstWorldProblems.  Maybe there should be a line at the beginning that asks first that "May all be safe and sound."

Monday, October 7, 2013

Four Hands

March 18, 1986

There were four of us in that boat of a station wagon, screaming away from the light into the suburban black. The car could have held double that amount, but strangely, nobody else wanted to come. Driving was Niall (pronounced Neil) Farrelly, an upperclassman who was stuck rooming on a floor full of obnoxious college freshmen because he transferred to our school in the middle of the term.

Niall was one of the last people I thought would be interested in driving 100 miles out of town on a whim.  But hey, he was an engineering major, and he had been inundated with the same media hype we'd all been hearing for the past year.  Carl Sagan couldn't shut up about it, and there was that ominous looking book nearly everywhere you turned.

This was supposed to be one of the last weeks that you'd be able to see Halley's Comet, in the southeastern sky, as it screamed away from the light and back into its own corner of the suburban black.  From our campus, east was the shining Philly skyline, and south was puffing oil refineries.  It only seemed logical to do the road trip thing, and the Jersey shore seemed perfect.  We pointed to a little dot on the map called Cape May, right at the southern tip, knowing it to be far from the sparkly rides and well-lit boardwalks.

We left around 8:00 pm, with that utter disregard for a good night's sleep that can only be understood prior to the age of 25.  Poor Niall was stuck in a car with three of those obnoxious freshmen.

To his right was Fozz, a wide-grinning frat pledge and fellow engineering major, who just spent the last few hours arguing with his girlfriend about this spur of the moment trip.  In the back seat, passenger side, was Beave, Fozz's roommate, and the amateur astronomy buff of the group.  I was next to Beave, right behind Niall.  (I won't be telling you my college nickname, but thank you for asking.)

We stopped at our campus 7-11 to get cigars to smoke on the beach, then we zoomed off to Cape May.  After almost 30 years, I can't recall much about the drive down, but I remember that little town.  We circled and recircled the half-dozen streets, looking for the best place to park and comet-gaze.  There was rampant paranoia about the town cops that we glimpsed from time to time.

Then the beach.  We finally parked and walked out onto the sand, the waves crashing higher and closer to us than really seemed proper for that time of night.  The stars were crisp and the sky was black.  Beave kind of sheepishly told us that, despite being from Baltimore, he had never stood on a beach before.  We broke out the cigars, mainly for warmth.  I didn't mind the stomach ache it gave me.

It probably took a half hour to really get our bearings -- and to remember that we had a friend's binoculars in the car -- before we found that sad little comet near the horizon.  Just barely a smudge with the naked eye, the coma and tail were nicely visible with the binocs.  We felt mildly betrayed by the talking heads on TV -- not to mention Professor Billyuns and Billyuns -- who all promised a major spectacle.  It didn't matter.  This was something special.

Being so excited, we didn't notice the elderly couple walking along the beach.  (I won't examine my memory in too much detail, for fear that these old people weren't so much older than I am right now.)  They saw what we were doing, and asked us to point out the comet for them.  Despite our gesturing, neither of them could make it out.  I think it was me who suggested propping the binoculars on a nearby stone wall, and have Fozz go stand about 10 feet in front.  I'd look through and get it centered, then tell him how to adjust his stance and his upraised arm, so he would be pointing right at the target.

It took a few minutes to get right, but it worked.  The lady and the gentleman took turns looking through the steadied device, and their eyes followed Fozz's magnified finger right to it.

"Hey Beave," Fozz called over, a while later.


"I touched a comet."

We hung around a bit after they left, collecting shells and daring each other to go further towards the water.  Before getting back in the car, we did probably the cheesiest thing any of us had ever done, or done since.  We put our four hands together and vowed that, if any of us are still alive when the comet comes back again, in 2061, we'll make our way down to this very same beach and say hello again.

We got back in the car and headed to the highway that would take us back to the city, to the light.  Almost at the on-ramp, red and blue light filled the night.

Panic, of course.  It was something like 3:00 am, and we were 100 miles away from where we should have been.  (Though we were breaking no laws here, I still have no idea if we were violating university policy by being out of the dorm like that.)

"You know your left tail light is out, son?"

Again, almost 30 years of time has fogged the details, but I'm pretty sure a verbal warning was all that Cape May's finest had for us that night.

I knew I should've been sleepy on the drive back.  We all should've been.  We were also not quite 20 years old and knee-deep in high adventure.  Classic rock anthems blared from the radio, and we sang along loudly.  But then another song started up, one we all knew by heart.  Its first bars were just lone piano, cycling through a subtle harmony that penetrates one's chest because the pianist's left hand is all the way down at the bass end.  We didn't sing to the first few verses, because this is one that builds.  The words that make up the name of the song don't even appear until it's nearly over.  It's the one moment of this whole trip that will be burned into my memory until the year 2061.

"Hey Beave," Fozz turned around and called.


"Don't stop believin."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Love and the Fight

October is here, and it's treadmill season again.  This morning, while marching up an endless incline, I received an interesting juxtaposition of music from the ol' MP3 random shuffle.

First, Uprising by Muse.

Second, Come and Get Your Love, by Redbone.

If you know the songs, you'd probably think it might be somewhat jarring to segue from hard-driving V-for-Vendetta-style rebelling against the Man, right into a groovin' 70s Native American love-in.

Strangely, I found myself not being jarred at all.  It kind of worked for me.

For the rest of the day, I wondered why.  I'm still not sure if I have an answer, but I think it tells me that our yearning for love and our yearning for justice are related to one another very deeply.  It tells me that Aleister Crowley's statement "Love is the law, love under Will" doesn't mean that love is a second-class emotion, under the thumb of one's intentional volition.  Very much the opposite.  Instead, I think it means that you can only have real love if you have the freedom to will it into existence.  The freedom to say "yes" or "no" when it comes a-callin.  But sometimes that freedom must be fought for.

This also reminds me, for the umpteenth time, of my dissatisfaction with Neil Peart's Clockwork Angels (both album and novel).  I hate to belabor this point yet again, but it's hard to wrap my head around the idea that the author of 2112 -- a triumphant and tragic Uprising of its time -- has changed so much that he lets the bad guys go their merry way.  I don't see the need for such a strict either-or, here.  Turn the other cheek or be consumed by the dark side?  Please... it's possible to fight for freedom and live a life of love.

I don't think the above contains any sparkling new insight on humanity and the world.  "Cygnus: master of the bleedin' obvious."  (Fawlty Towers quote)  But it's not every day that the random music shuffle gets one thinking about such things.  Might as well document it.  :-)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Six Cartographic Detours

In looking through the last few topics on the D&D 30-day challenge, I find myself either shrugging my shoulders at things that don't apply to the version I grew up with, or scratching my head wondering how my answers would differ from what I already said in some of the earlier questions.  Thus, I've made the executive decision to declare the challenge over and done with, and replace it with something that I always found much more inspiring for my RPG adventures...


Click (any of them) for bigger versions
I suppose one can't get around the need to start with Tolkien.  A lot of people talk about how he supposedly wrote The Lord of the Rings in order to weave a story around the fictional languages that he spent decades crafting.  But he also created a visual world, filled with forbidding mountains, murky forests, and eerie swamps.  He also envisioned how that world changed -- sometimes violently -- over thousands of years.

The map above (found on a forum thread) shows a spooky before-and-after overlay of what happened to the elven lands of Beleriand when it became collateral damage in an epic war between good and evil spirits.  Still, who knows what the future will hold?  The elf queen Galadriel once talked about what may happen when "...the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again."

Closer to the modern age -- but still existing sideways in the land of imagination -- are the fictional cities of DC comics...

Don't worry about the thought balloon above; just have a squint at the details on that map.  Unlike the heroes of Marvel Comics, who tended to hang out in New York City -- where the writers lived -- the DC heroes often inhabited fictional cities of their own.  Everyone knows that Superman lives in Metropolis and Batman lives in Gotham City.  There were dozens of others, too.  To their credit, DC has artfully maintained the fiction that these places are not just silly pseudonyms for the Big Apple for many decades.

(Some writers took inspiration from other places... Superman's creators Siegel and Shuster modeled the Daily Planet building after a real newspaper tower in their home city of Toronto.)

The map above, from a 1978 newspaper strip, shows that shiny Metropolis is "really" just east of Dover, Delaware, and grim Gotham is just across the river near Fairfield Township, New Jersey.  Who knew?  :-)

Maybe we should move closer to "reality?"

Check out those purple and green regions.  I remember first seeing the above map in a historical atlas in my elementary school's library.  The idea that there once was a proposal to craft mid-western states called "Transylvania" and "Vandalia" blew my little mind.  Can you imagine TFC (Transylvanian Fried Chicken)?

Hmm, maybe that's all a bit too close to reality for fantastical role-playing.  How about if we zoom out by a few dozen orders of magnitude...

Cue the Alexander Courage theme song!  Above is a page from Franz Joseph's 1975 Star Fleet Technical Manual, which because of some strange licensing agreements didn't appear able to directly reference names like "Kirk" or "Spock" -- though "Enterprise" was snuck in there.  Subsequent generations of fandom and TV shows may have changed the details, but the above is how I always think about that universe.  That page also introduced me to some real history, too!  :-)

Another way to be blinded by science (fiction) is to sit too close to the Sun...

For a long time, astronomers believed Mercury was "tidally locked" like the Moon is in its orbit around the Earth.  They thought that there was a molten side that always faced the Sun, and a side that sat in eternal night.  In between the two was a region that you can see gave Rod Serling some great inspiration.  The above image is from the 1940s pulp adventures of Captain Future... I first saw it in an awesome book from the 1970s called An Atlas of Fantasy.

(FYI, Mercury isn't really tidally locked, but there are hundreds of planets around other stars that are!)

Lastly is probably one of the very first fantasy worlds I experienced through the magic of television...

I couldn't find an actual map of the Neighborhood of Make Believe, so I had to make do with this wide-angle photo of the original set.  You may not know a lot of things as a toddler growing up in the early 70s, but you know that the castle is on the left, the tree housing the owl and cat is in the middle, and the clock without hands is on the right.  Oh, and you also know that any museum that isn't also a giant merry-go-round is totally lame!  :-)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Me... In... Space...

No, I haven't been accepted into the astronaut program -- yet!

However, my namesake, the Orbital Sciences CYGNUS spacecraft, has just made its first flight into orbit!  (They must be Rush fans, too.)  If you look closely at the press photos, you can see that it's named after yours truly.  Here, let me blow it up for you...

I think the entry of private companies into space flight is an extremely hopeful sign for the future.  More players make for a more exciting and competitive game, leading to lower costs and new ideas.  Still, there's plenty of room for the government to fund the really big, visionary projects -- if it so chooses.  I was excited to see an article in this month's Physics Today outlining some grand ideas for how to really accomplish an interstellar trip to Alpha Centauri.  (It's pretty rare to see speculation like this in that great, but slightly musty and stodgy, magazine!)

All the more impetus for this Cygnus to get moving on his project for a Space Race / Right Stuff inspired role playing game.  Initial ideas for that game are here and here.  We'll see what the fuuuuuuture holds!  :-)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fighting On through the D&D 30 Day Challenge

More fun with the month-long blog party!

(14) Favorite NPC

The Non-Player Character (NPC) is often the Dungeon Master's trusty outlet for misdirection, MacGuffin plot development, and overall hamming it up.  However, I don't know if I can recall any of my own NPCs by name -- other than a few famous denizens of Middle Earth who appeared that time I popped everyone through a dimensional rift.

What I can remember is my most embarrassing bit of NPC acting as a DM.  It was definitely during high school... probably age 16 for me.  The NPC was a minor bad-guy, sort of comic relief prior to the players encountering the real villain.  Earlier that day, I remember clearly that a TV show I usually watched was pre-empted for something else... something that skewed distinctly, um, younger in its intended demographic than what was usually on at that time.

Yes, it was Strawberry Shortcake.  To my later regret, I was too lazy to get up and change the channel (no remote control!), and I watched it.  The bad guy on that show was the Purple Pie-Man, and he did a little ha-cha-cha sort of short song when announcing his presence.  That song stuck in my brain like super glue, and I ended up using it for the comic-relief NPC.

Being an only child, it kind of slipped my mind that several of my friends at the table had younger siblings who would be watching a show like this on the big family TV, and that the older sib might have absorbed it by osmosis.  I was caught!  The ribbing was fierce, but short-lived.  :-)

(15) Favorite Monster (Undead)

Got to be all of the bat-poop crazy variants on the undead from the Fiend Folio.  Artist Russ Nicholson gave vibrant life to those wild British imports.

(16) Favorite Monster (Aberration)

Aren't they all horrific aberrations of nature?  Still, the morkoth might take the cake for having the most chilling and creepy image in the 1st edition Monster Manual.

(17) Favorite Montster (Animal/Vermin)

Gotta be wolves.  Not only does the howling foreshadow all kinds of primal terror, but if the sound comes from multiple directions, then the players may just be outnumbered... and surrounded!

(18) Favorite Monster (Immortal/Outsider)

I think the Rakshasa falls in this category.  Nowhere else in the original Monster Manual is there a sentence filled with such foreboding as the first line of their entry:
"Known first in India, these evil spirits encased in flesh are spreading."
Some treat them as crafty, but still beast-like at heart.  I'd tend to treat them with more subtlety... maybe using their ESP and illusion powers to go undercover in human society... having patience for a big payoff down the road.  I used them in this way in this short adventure concept as proprietors of a gambling den.

(19) Favorite Monster (Elemental/Plant)

You know, I think these questions might just be a tad padded with fluff to get up to the magic number of 30.

(20) Favorite Monster (Humanoid/Natural/Fey)

The biggest guys... giants, titans, ettins... fascinated me quite a bit.  Probably because they came in a colorful palette of types (like the dragons and demons) but still had more-or-less human societies and foibles -- kind of like mortal versions of the gods.  At the risk of plugging another old post, I suggested a random giant generation system for people who wanted to spring something new on players.

(21) Favorite Dragon

A giant, ancient red dragon always seemed to be most appropriate for being a party's classic, eternal, elusive foe.  One of my friends from high school was a master storyteller of a DM who, over the course of years, caused us to just seethe with hate when we encountered the dreaded Ignis Unus.  (I have a feeling that's not perfect Latin for "The Fiery One," but we didn't care!)  :-)

But my own favorite type of dragon goes off that beaten path.  I always loved the idea of the tiny little pseudo-dragon most of all.

It's approximately the same size and disposition as a house-cat, and can communicate with its master via telepathy.  It can also blend into its surroundings like a chameleon and sting its enemies with its lightning-sharp tail.  Okay, it may be a bit of nerdish wish fulfillment, but you can't deny the coolness of the concept!  :-)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Adventuring with the D&D 30 Day Challenge

I'm going to continue bundling my answers to the ongoing September RPG house party.  The full list of questions is here, and below is this week's crop of answers...

(7) Favorite Edition

1st edition AD&D.  I liked the Holmes basic box, but never looked back after getting those three original hardcovers.

I'm sure someone else has made the following analogy between the timing of D&D editions...
  • 1977: First basic boxed set 
  • 1980: 1st edition AD&D books hitting the market 
  • Early 80s: Newer AD&D products (UA, OA, Dragonlance) start to go downhill; seeds sown for 2nd edition. 
  • Late 90s: After some dormancy and changing of the guard, 3rd edition is a very different kettle of fish (a stinky one, if you ask me) 
  • Early-mid 2000s:  3.5 edition, 4th edition.  Not my bag, baby.
...and the timing of something else:
  • 1977: Star Wars 
  • 1980: Empire Strikes Back  (peak of quality, many say) 
  • Early 80s: Return of the Jedi.  Still okay, but Ewoks, really?
  • Late 90s: After some dormancy, Phantom Menace.
  • Early-mid 2000s:  The rest of the prequels.  "Noooooo!"
The analogy isn't perfect, of course.  (I'm not going to look for parallels between 1974's OD&D and American Graffiti!)  Looking forward, I suppose one can add to both lists:
  • 2014-2015: Yet another reboot.
I'm interested in seeing what both of those are all about, but I'm not holding my breath.  :-)

(8) Favorite Character You Have Played

There were two:  a human fighter named Arwold Archmalios, and a human cleric named Ingomer Lakhshmin.  The hodge-podge of names from different cultural backgrounds made (somewhat) more sense in the context of the Atlantis-like continent of their birth.

Arwold didn't have too many distinguishing personality traits, and was probably more a throwback to the featureless player stand-in PCs of late 70s OD&D.  He did carry around a sawed-off bardiche (which was usually a long pole topped by a curvy metal axe) that I managed to convince everyone did just as much damage as a full bardiche but could be wielded as easily as a sword.  My mental image of red-bearded Arwold was staring back at me from my AD&D Dungeon Master's Screen...

Ingomer's first adventure was L1: The Secret of Bone Hill, which contained the "Church of the Big Gamble."  The priests there were into randomness and worshiping the gods of chance and fortune.  I got the idea that Ingomer would be enthralled by this concept, and I searched through the Deities & Demigods book until I found Xochipilli, the Aztec god of gambling and chance, to be his patron deity.  That also was a decent fit for my crazy Atlantis-like continent!  :-)

They both made it up to something around 15th level before retiring and passing on the baton to the next generation.

(9) Favorite Character You Haven't Played

Ummm... not sure I understand this one.  Unless the questioner is talking about licensed properties (like playing Harry Potter or Gandalf), the characters don't exist until you create them.  Even at that point, they're just a few numbers on a page.  You've got to run them around for a while, and let them grow into themselves.

Now, as a DM, I might look forward to "playing" the roles of a few unused NPCs that I've come up with over the years.  Gotta have good villains!  I've got a great voice picked out for Manannan of Montfort, for example.

(10) Craziest Thing That Happened [in an RPG adventure]

The square brackets above clarify my interpretation of this question.  I might get people in trouble if I were to answer that more broadly!

Thing is, this all was 30 years ago.  I remember some crazy-fun D&D sessions.  There was a time when some really innovative thinking and teamwork got the party across a deadly chasm.  The success bred a kind of natural high that lasted for a couple of days (in real time, not game time!) afterward.  But I couldn't even begin to remember enough detail to bring that to life again.  :-(

(11) Favorite Adventure You Ran

At the time, the favorite adventure that I created from scratch was a high-level extra-planar extravaganza, capped by a confrontation with Orcus.  I called it "War in Heaven," and might have even had The Battle of Evermore playing in the background or something.  Too bad it was a massive railroad from start to finish.

(12) Favorite Dungeon Type / Location

My friends and I started out with many a bog-standard "dungeon crawl," so when I got into DMing, I always tried to stretch beyond that.  The few times I started new first-level groups from scratch, I led off with B3: Palace of the Silver Princess.  I suppose it's an above-ground dungeon crawl, but there's less of a problem in trying to justify the existence of a large semi-abandoned mansion than there is explaining why there's a multi-level underground ecosystem filled with monsters and treasure.  :-)

Thinking back, I guess I did tend to prefer adventures with some component set in houses or castles.  That part felt like an open-ended game of Clue!  The Clockwork Mage was kind of like that, too.

(13) Favorite Trap / Puzzle

I don't think I excelled at crafting these kind of mind-frack exercises.  I do remember once inflicting this quite sadistic, but ultimately harmless "trap" (from Dragon magazine #35) on my friends:

Should be readable if you right-click it into a new window

They forgave me.  :-)