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Jeff's Gameblog
Wednesday, 14 July 2004

Topic: Books
Got over to the library over lunch, mostly to return some videos I had checked out for my daughter. We need to get her some Dora the Explorer DVDs for her birthday. She eats that stuff up. Anyway, while I was there I snagged a book on the history of political parties from 1890 to the present. I would have preferred a complete overview going back to before the Revolutionary War, but I was in a hurry and grabbed what I could find easily.

Posted by jrients at 2:33 PM CDT

Topic: Books
Last night after Elizabeth went to bed I finished reading Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars who Lie While Lying Down or whatever it's called. Good read. Very funny. Also very, very partisan but in an amusingly unabashed way in most passages. In the interest of fairness I tried checking out www.frankenlies.com for some perspective on the work. Surprisingly, I had trouble finding real substantive gripes about the factual assertions that Franken makes. I really expected there to be more oomph to frankenlies.com. To be fair, maybe I just clicked on the wrong articles. I didn't feel like reading the whole thing.

Since I enjoyed Lies I decided to try the other Franken book my wife owns, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Poopy Head. Okay, that's not actually the exact title, but you know what I mean. Another good book so far, though the writing isn't quite as tight as in Lies. Here's my favorite passage so far:

You know what I dislike most about these guys? They're always so certain. They're always 100 percent sure of what they're saying. Even if it's wrong. It must be a great feeling for a guy like Rush Limbaugh. To be able to sit there and say, "There are more Indians alive today than when Columbus landed," and really believe it.

This is why I like being a Democrat. When we see a complicated, semmingly intractable problem, we have the only really genuine, authentic human reaction you can have: we're confused.

Fortunately, I believe that "confused" is a majority position in this country.

Certainly Mr. Franken is oversimplifying. I can find plenty of people on the left who think they know what they're talking about. Still, the right drives me nuts with this sort of stuff.

But I think he hit on something crucial in American politics. Ordinary folks are intimidated when they encounter the confusion surrounding the big problems in the world. Some guy who steps up and confidently says "here are the answers" will do a lot better than an honest man who shakes his head and mutters "this is awful mess, but we'll get through it as best as we can." I know I would rather vote for a genuine Shell Answer Man than the other guy, but we as a country need to stop being taken in by the easy answers. We're the greatest nation on Earth, for crying out loud. When did that mean life would be easy?

"With great power comes great responsibility."

Posted by jrients at 12:00 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, 14 July 2004 12:15 PM CDT
Sunday, 11 July 2004

Topic: Books
Earlier today I picked up my wife's copy of Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Very entertaining book. My approach to this sort of book is a lot like my attitude towards Michael Moore's works: it doesn't matter that much to me if everything in the book is true. It's entertaining either way and pretty damning if even just a few accusations leveled at the Right are correct.

Posted by jrients at 3:34 PM CDT
Wednesday, 7 July 2004

Topic: Books
I swung by the library tonight and picked up Word Freak, a tale of one journalists voyage through the world of hardcore competitive Scrabble. I'm only up to about Page 20 and I'm amused by the similarities to my own gaming circles. It seems human nature is the same no matter what fringe hobby you wander into. The Scrabble community has its own mix of nerds, social rejects, weird genii, and basically normal people with a slightly quirky hobby.

One startling difference is the way that it's so easy to tell the casual player from the hardcore Scrabblite. The casual players are drawn from the world of ordinary tabletop diversions. Scrabble, after all, is firmly wedged in the popular conscience as a family game. Lotsa regular folks play it. Since D&D is a less mainstream of a game, it's sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. It's easy to assume that because someone plays D&D that they are a hardcore gaming machine. The fact of the matter is that much evidence can be found to support the notion that most folks play D&D with the same casual commitment that other people play Scrabble or Monopoly. It took me a long time to realize that I was a member of the hardcore enthusiasts. It didn't occur to me until very recently that I have always measured myself against the standards set by the the people most devoted to the hobby. Here I am with a mile long list of dubious gaming credentials and I still chide myself for being a lightweight. It took the first couple of chapters of Word Freak to help me understand just how deep I am into this hobby.

Talk about a lack of friggin' perspective! Just the fact that I GM moves me up a notch on the Geek-O-Meter. Heck, I could just about build another version of the Gamer Purity Test by rattling off the points of contact shared by my life and the hobby. Let's list just a few items, shall we?
    I've had subscriptions to three different gaming publications.
    I was an RPGA member back before free membership.
    I've attended 5 or 6 different game conventions, most more than once.
    I've GM'ed at a con, more times than I can remember.
    I've played in D&D tournaments.
    Heck, I've written two D&D tournaments.
    I've played more incarnations of D&D than I can keep track of.
    I've owned literally hundreds of games. Still own many.
    I've been a playtester.
    I've submitted an article to Dragon for publication. (The fact that it was rejected as "too wild an idea" but basically the same article got published a few years later still burns me.)
    I've been published in an APAzine.
    I'm active on various RPG internet forums.
    I maintain a gaming-related website.
    I write daily in a blog devoted primarily to gaming.
    I have a room in my house set aside for my hobby.
    Etc, etc.

Despite all this evidence, I still usually think of myself as a young punk in the hobby. I guess this comes from two big sources. First of all, I hang out with a fair number of grognards whose pedigrees are even longer and more colorful than my own. I'm so deep into the subculture that someone who played Chainmail with Uncle Gary back in '73 looks worthy of emulation. Secondly, I consider being a published and respected RPG author to be really damn cool. Since I'm such a hack GM and lazy writer I pretty much consider being a published RPG author an unattainable goal. Yet it's still there. That, to certain extant, keeps me humble.

Posted by jrients at 9:26 PM CDT

Topic: Books
Cyborg Commando books 2 and 3
Over lunch today I finished The Ultimate Prize, book 3 of the Cyborg Commando trilogy. I hate to come down hard on the authors, but man this stuff was pretty dang bland. For the most part it didn't really go anywhere. In this book we finally get a close up look at the Master, the evil alien overlord directing the xenoborg invasion, but he never interacts with the heroes. No lightsabre duel, no taunting heroic prisoners, nothing. The growth ray used on the insects doesn't really accomplish much, as the giant insects don't accomplish much of anything. The only good thing about The Ultimate Prize was the look at life for the refugees trying to survive while wandering the alien infested midwest. Parts of that were genuinely heartwrenching. Still, on a scale of one to ten, I give this trilogy a solid kick to the jimmy.

Posted by jrients at 3:06 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, 7 July 2004 3:08 PM CDT
The Mystery of the Fourth Templar
Topic: Books
Bleh. Looks like Tripod ate another blog entry. Every time some like this happens I wonder if I shouldn't look for another free blog host. Google owns a blog site, right?

Called my local library today. They're holding their copy of Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak, a look into the world of competitive Scrabble. I'm interested in taking a peeking into another gamer subculture.

The nice librarian also initiated a interlibrary loan booksearch for two other books I'm interested in. The first is the omnibus edition of Storm Constantine's Wraeththu trilogy. If I'm seriously considering paying real currency for the Wraeththu rpg (should it ever see commercial release), then I ought to take a shot at reading the background material.

The other book I'm hoping to get my hands on is D.B. Pritchards's Encyclopedia of Chess Variants, the most comprehensive book on the subject. I'm hoping to find info on something called "Valentine's Chess", which I know nothing about save that one of the pieces is called the templar. I want to do a little article for the Chess Variants pages outlining the history of alternate chess pieces designated by the word templar. The Cv pages has two such variants, Pete Leyva's Palace Revolution and Jack Cheiky's Geodesic Chess. I've found another chess templar, described by George Jellis in his article Theory of Moves. Frank Truelove's list of fairy pieces seems to indicate that a fourth templar can be found in Pritchard's Encyclopdia under Valentine's Ch[ess]. The three known templars are all different pieces, though they are united in the fact that, as befitting a templar, they are all a knight with an additional move of some sort. Valentine's templar is an enigma.


Posted by jrients at 1:25 PM CDT
Saturday, 3 July 2004

Topic: Books
I finished reading Chase into Space today and I'm starting to figure out some of the reasons this trilogy seems so bland. The only real conflict in these books is Us vs Them, all of humanity versus the insectoid alien menace. Without a Darth Vader figure the overall conflict has no villain to boo. There's no real person-to-person conflict. Nora and Cris reunite without Cris showing any anger over being abandoned as a child. The only real interpersonal conflict, between John and the fatass major, is brief and basically played for laughs. And there's very little intrapersonal conflict. Nora manages to just stop being an alcoholic. Cris's anger management issues never jeopardize a mission. The whole trilogy seems to be hinged entirely on the alien threat, there's nothing else under the surface. That must be why these books are such a fast read, they're about the most shallow sci-fi I've ever read.

Posted by jrients at 7:37 PM CDT
Monday, 28 June 2004

Topic: Books
I'm two-thirds through Gould's Wonderful Life, about the unusual Burgess Shale fauna from the Cambrian era. I feel like the book may have peaked early. The middle chapter covers all the "monsters" in detail. The rest of science is all well and good, but I got into the subject because of the weird critters.

Posted by jrients at 9:15 PM CDT
Wednesday, 23 June 2004
Quote of the Day
Topic: Books
From What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Bernard Lewis
Westerners have become accustomed to think of good and bad government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. In Middle-Eastern usage, liberty or freedom was a legal not a political term. It meant one who was not a slave, and unlike the West, Muslims did not use slavery and freedom as political metaphors. For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice. Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according to God's law, or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles.

Posted by jrients at 2:12 PM CDT
Sunday, 20 June 2004

Topic: Books
When I went to library yesterday I returned The Year 1000 without actually opening it. I do that sometimes. What seems like a good book to read in the library just doesn't excite me when I get it home. I checked out two books. Why I chose those particular books exemplifies how I wander into new subject matter to read.

The first one was Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould. I'm sure I've read something by Gould before, but I can't quite put my finger on the title.

I first got interested in the Burgess Shale after reading an article by Ken Pick over at the excellent Traveller webzine Freelance Traveller. Here's part of Mr. Pick's explanation of what exactly the Burgess Shale is and why we should care about it:
The Burgess Shale is a geologic formation in the Canadian Rockies, incredibly rich in fossils from Earth's early Cambrian period -- the earliest known (except possibly for the Edicara) muticellular life on Earth. Over 90% of these fossils are unclassifiable except as "Problematica" (unclassifiable weird ones), matching no known phylum.
Pick uses the Burgess Shale as a metaphor for Traveller gaming prior to the publication of the 3rd Imperium setting. Until the 3I stuff started appearing, people made their own setting. Traveller was a set of rules for sci-fi adventuring with no hardwired setting, exactly the way D&D approached fantasy. Anyway, the fossilized lifeforms preserved in the Shale have very little in common with life as we know it today. I'm hoping Gould can tell me a little bit more about these weird creatures.

The other book I picked up was Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. How I arrived at the decision to track down this particular book is kinda interesting. My cow-orkers Laurie gave me a couple of back issues of Discover magazine. She mentioned that she thought I would like some of the articles in them. The April 2003 issue has an article entitled "Who Loves Ya, Baby?" by Steven Johnson in which he reports on the emergence of software dedicated mapping relationship networks. Software designer Valdiss Krebs is on the forefront of this stuff and he did an experiment using Amazon's database of purchases. Krebs wanted to see if he could map the political polarization of the US by looking at two relationship maps. Each map would be based upon one book and the books connected to it by purchases. So for example, if you started with book A and some people who bought book A also bought books B, C, and/or D, the first step in drawing the map would look something like this (the periods are just place holders):

D-A-C
..|
..B


Next Krebs's program looks at D, C, and B. If some people who bought D also bought A, B, E and/or F, then the map might next look like this:

..F
..|
E-D-A-C
...\|
....B


This process is repeated until all the purchase relationships for the entire database are mapped, at least those relationships that can lead back to A. It's sort of kinda like playing Twelve Million Steps to A Biography of Kevin Bacon.

In order to look at the political divide in the country, Krebs made two such maps with Amazon's database. One started with Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and the other with Ann Coulter's Slander. Krebs wanted to see which books appeared on both maps. Only Lewis's What Went Wrong connects the two relationship maps.

Admittedly, only looking at Amazon purchases isn't exactly the most ideal method of mapping the political spectrum, but the results still creep me out. Is the question "What Went Wrong?" the only thing the right and the left have in common anymore? Lewis's book is about the Middle East, but not about 9/11/2001. However, it was in the print process when the tragedies of 9/11 happened and made it into stores not too long thereafter. I can see why a lot of people at that time would have been drawn to Lewis's book. Everybody wanted to know what went wrong. Here's a guy who maybe has an answer.

So anyway, I decided if What Went Wrong? is the only meeting place for the left and the right, then I had better read it. If all that the folks in the US of A have in common anymore is a desire to understand what the hell is going on in the Middle East then maybe we need to all get together and find the answer.

The folks on the other half of the political spectrum seem as incomprehensible as Wellsian Martians to me some days. The fact that so many people on the right and the left have this question in common says something important. It gives me a glimpse into the essential humanity of everyone, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum.

Posted by jrients at 10:33 AM CDT
Updated: Sunday, 20 June 2004 10:52 AM CDT

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