Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Curse of Alexander Graham Bell

Talking on the phone has to be the worst form of business communication ever invented.

I know I’ve railed before about people not being to communicate via email, but today I want to approach it from the opposite side.  When people refuse to use email to answer your questions, how do they want to communicate?  Inevitably the answer is the phone.  And I just don’t understand it.  I really don’t.

I’ve got a vendor right now that I asked for some information about their product.  And he desperately wants to call me.  I mean, I can feel his drool coming over the wires, you know?  And I don’t know how many different ways I can explain to him that I don’t want his fucking phone call.  I don’t need to hear his cheery voice, and he ain’t gonna make me want to buy anything more than I already do if I could only hear his wonderful sales pitch.  I want information.  I want technical facts that I can study and digest, and then figure out what questions I have (if any).

If we have a phone conversation, we have to do it at a time that’s convenient for him.  Because my best working hours are after dark, that means it definitely won’t be convenient for me.

If we talk on the phone, I will have no record of the conversation.  I will have nothing to go back and reread (hell, nothing to read in the first place).  I will having nothing that I can revisit and understand better the second time, or think of new questions, or connect with something else I’ve read.

I will not have time to plan my questions and compose my thoughts.  I will have to think on the fly, and whatever I don’t think of, won’t get asked.  Unless we schedule yet another phone call.

If I do think of good questions, the best answers I can possibly receive are whatever he can deliver on the fly.  He doesn’t have any more time to ponder answers than I did to ponder the questions, and that means incomplete answers, evasive answers, or, at best, “let me get back to you on that” answers.  If he has to pass the question along to someone else, I have to wait for another phone call for the answer, and I don’t even get the benefit of seeing the third party’s email address as I would if he forwarded my question on to his tech department and CC’ed me.

God forbid he should have some sort of accent that would make it hard for me to understand him.  Some of the most frustrating business communications of my life have been on the phone trying to make heads or tails out a strange accent while trying not to sound like a prejudiced asshole.  I mean, I fully support every nationality and every language being involved in my industry, and I’m one of those crazy hippie liberals, so I rejoice in diversity.  But that doesn’t help me understand you if you’re new to my language.  And you know what?  Your accent is not a problem in your email.

And, what is possibly the worst thing of the whole sad, sorry situation is that there’s no upside at all.  Really, none.  If we can’t communicate via email because we absolutely must sit down in a conference room and waste everyone’s time talking face-to-face, that’s still annoying, but at least we can talk about making a personal connection.  I still say the value of being able to see your body language is marginal at best, or at least is easily balanced out by the extra precision and thought put into a written communique, but I can’t deny that there’s some value in being able to smile at you and shake your hand, even in the forever lost time of polite chitchat ... all that goes into you and I being able to see each other as real people, and being able to act like we’re friendly even though we both know we’ll never actually be friends.  Physical presence definitely has an upside.  But what’s personal about a phone call?  How is a disembodied voice a personal connection?  I gotta tell you: being able to hear your tone of voice doesn’t even begin to cover the disadvantages of not having your words in front of me to peruse again and again.

In fact, the whole tone of voice thing is often more of a disadvantage.  It means that I have to plaster a fake smile on my face and act nice.  (Yes, even though you can’t see me, you can tell whether I’m smiling or not.  You can hear a smile over the phone quite easily.)  In an email, I can curse your name and wish horrific evolutionary dead-ends on your family tree the whole time I’m composing wonderfully polite rhetoric with which to impress upon you my graciousness.  And, if it’s not polite enough the first time, I can delete it all and start over, and over again, until I get it just right.  On the phone, it’s much harder, and I only get one shot at it.

Overall, the phone is not just inefficient; it’s downright inferior.  And yet my vendors want to call me, and my boss wants me to call people, and my boss’s boss wants me to call people, and everyone’s ticked off at me when I express my preference for email.  It’s enough to make you think the world is out to get you.

Or at least tie you down and force you to talk on the phone.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Roleplaying After the Fall

My elder son has become fascinated with post-apocalyptic things.  This is primarily because of the purchase of Fallout: New Vegas, which enthralled him for several months.  Then there was Fallout 3.  Then, for his birthday, among the many other video games, Bioshock.

And, somewhere in the midst of that, he decided that he wanted to stop the fantasy roleplaying we had been doing (we play Pathfinder, which is an evolution of the grandaddy of roleplaying games, D&D) and start some post-apocalyptic roleplaying.  Which meant that I had to go on a world-wide search for a good PA RPG.  We settled on Darwin’s World, which is a pretty neat system, and all the books are available via PDF, which means that you can just download a new book when you need it instead of having to go to the gaming store and buy it.  Which is convenient (if expensive).

Pen-and-paper (PnP) RPGs (as opposed to RPG video games) are an old love of mine.  I got my first edition (1e) copy of D&D when I was quite young, although I had no one to play with.  That didn’t stop me from poring over the books again and again until I learned all the rules.  Later, when my brother was old enough to play, I took on the role of game master (GM) and ran my brother through many homemade dungeons.  Ah, the days of graph paper dungeon making.  You do all that stuff on computers nowadays.

It takes a lot of effort (and time) to put together a world for roleplaying.  When I was younger, time wasn’t a problem.  The older you get, the less time you have.  This is partially because you have to do silly things like work for a living, but it’s also because your time sense slows down as you get older, which in turn makes time appear to go by faster.  This is something we all intuitively understand, but it turns out there’s actually a biological reason for it.  I heard on some NPR show that, by the time you’re 25 years old, you’ve already experienced about three-quarters of the virtual time you’re going to get in your life.  Which is depressing, if you think about it.  I try not to think about it.

But it definitely means that it’s harder and harder to scrape together the time to plan all that stuff out, if you happen to be the GM.  And, when you’re roleplaying with your kids, you’re always the GM.  It’s fun, and I’ve always believed that RPGs are educational in many ways, so it’s definitely something that you want to encourage in your kids, especially if you have some experience in it yourself.  But it’s very time-consuming, so we don’t play as often as he’d like.  Or as often as I’d like, really.

PnP RPGs are not necessarily better than video game RPGs—they have advantages and disadvantages.  When you play a video game RPG, whatever system the game uses is programmed into it by its creators.  This is good, in the sense that you don’t have to think about it very much—hell, you don’t even really need to understand it, or at least not the internal mechanics of it.  With a PnP RPG, you need to know the mechanics pretty well.  Which is more of a learning curve (although learning all that stuff is part of why it’s educational: the biggest question that comes up when trying to teach your kids math is “when am I ever going to need to know this in real life?” and PnP RPGs provide an answer for many of the math concepts that inspire that question), but when you have to understand the system thoroughly, it means you get to adjust it.  If there’s something about the system you don’t like, you just change it.  Of course, you need to understand the consequences of changing it, and you have to make sure you don’t break anything, and then there’s even more sneaky educational opportunities.  But it all takes time.

If you don’t know much about PnP RPGs, I’ll take it slow for you.  The first thing you have to know is that almost all RPGs make use of polyhedral dice.  A four-sided die is called a d4, a 6-sided (which is the one you normally think of as a die if you don’t play RPGs) is a d6, and so on, up to the d20, which is the largest die size used by the original D&D.  D&D 1e used all the dice, more or less equally.  It required that you understand quite a bit about various probability distributions and bell curves and stuff like that: almost everything I know about statistics, I learned from D&D.  After a decade or so, they decided to update the system a bit and then we had 2e (that’s second edition, if you’re keeping up).  2e wasn’t a whole lot different from 1e, at least in terms of simplicity.

Of course, the whole time that D&D was going through 1e and 2e, the rest of the RPG world was coming up with new systems.  The folks over at Palladium came up with the system that eventually led to Rifts, Steve Jackson invented GURPS, there was the HERO system that was originally designed for Champions, and of course White Wolf made a splash with Storyteller, which debuted in Vampire: The Masquerade and ditched all the dice except the d10.  And there were countless others—these are just a few of the more popular ones I’ve played.  Many of these systems were easier to use than D&D.  After changing owners a couple of times, D&D was ready for a big system change, with 3e, which introduced d20.

The d20 system is now very popular, for several reasons which will probably have to wait for its own blog post.  One of the big ones is that it focuses on the d20 (hence its name) for almost all its rolls, which right there makes it easier to learn than all the previous editions.  Darwin’s World started as generic d20, graduated to d20 Modern, then branched out into Savage Worlds and True20 rulesets.  So now you can get Darwin’s World in any of 3 flavors.  But the d20 Modern version is the default, which means that, if you choose to use one of the other two, you have to do a fair amount of converting from one system to another.

So even if you didn’t follow any of what all that stuff actually means, you can see that there’s a lot of work involved.  We chose to use the True20 version, because it plays a bit faster than d20, especially for combat purposes, and combat is where my impatient young scion tends to get frustrated the most.  So it seemed like a good idea at the time to try to streamline that.  I didn’t realize how much on-the-fly conversion I was going to need to do.

So that’s what my weekend has involved.  Last weekend was his birthday, so of course we were scheduled to do some roleplaying, and then I came down with a vicious cold that kept me home most of this past week, and we postponed.  Now, trying to get caught up with work and chores and family errands, I’m also trying to get caught up on roleplaying duties.  I just wrote a program to convert a d20 Modern stat block (that’s a laundry list of what a roleplaying monster can do) to True20.  It isn’t perfect, of course, but at least it’s fast.  Hopefully I can tweak it a bit as we go on.  And our gaming session tonight involved a lot of “wait, where did we leave off again?” and not so much “here’s what happens now!” but it was still fun.  And hopefully we’re now in a better position to do some more PA roleplaying soon.

But I wonder how long this fascination will last.  It’s held on for a while now, so maybe it’s a keeper.  I wonder when the last time I watched Road Warrior with him was ... we should do that again.  And I’m sure there’s some good PA books that I should be introducing him to, but it was never my bag the way it is for him, so I’m a bit underfunded in the recommendations department there.  I discovered there’s a radio adaptation of the seminal classic A Canticle for Liebowitz available; perhaps I’ll point him at that.

And I’ll keep on working at getting this new system down.  He deserves to have as many great memories of roleplaying as a kid as I do.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Chapter 17

Breen Lagoon

The water wasn’t brown any more.  Johnny thought that was weird, and then he thought how weird it was to think that all water that wasn’t brown was weird.  He’d been here too long.  At least he thought he had ... of course, really, he had no clue how long he’d been here at all.  He should ask Larissa.

Larissa was looking out over the water as well.  The straggly mist kept you from making out too many details far away, but you could see the water directly below the boat well enough, and it was blue.  A deep, clear blue, cool and inviting.  Johnny felt like he could see straight to the bottom, although he couldn’t actually make out any bottom.  Which only made him feel like the water must be very, very deep.  There was no sign of fish or any other aquatic life; all the floating plants were long gone and the “shore” they had crossed to get here was lost in the mist.  Larissa’s eyes seemed fixed on a rocky crag half hidden by the haze, ahead and to their left.  From the look in her eye, Johnny guessed she wasn’t really ready to talk about the passage of time (or lack thereof) in this strange place he had brought her.  It was a calculating, cataloguing look that seemed to be enumerating impossibilities and filing them away for later consideration.

Roger was back at the wheel.  She was guiding the ship slowly, partially because of the mist, Johnny supposed, but probably also because of the waves.  There had been no waves in the swamp, of course.  And Johnny wondered if an airboat, regardless of its impressive size and unusual qualities, was really the best craft for this particular journey.  He supposed it would have been impossible to get to this point in a ship with a large draft, but, if those waves got much bigger ...

Aidan was sitting in the bow of the ship, staff across his knees, head bowed.  He seemed exhausted by what he’d done to get them here.  Johnny squatted down beside him.  “That was very impressive,” Johnny said.

Aidan raised his head a bit and smiled a weak smile at Johnny.  “Thank you,” he replied.  “But I’m just a vessel.  Shallédanu lei shonta.”

Johnny nodded.  “So ... where are we now?”

Roger’s voice came out of nowhere, startling him.  “Breen Lagoon.  The place between places.”

Johnny looked up; Roger had come up behind him and stood over him, looking out over the misty water.  He noticed that the ship was now drifting on the waves, since no one was manning the wheel.  “The place between places?” he asked.

A place between places,” Aidan corrected.

“Well, it’s the only one me da’ ever told me about,” Roger said.

Aidan tried on his weak grin again.  “Your da’ was a well-traveled man, Captain, but there are a few places left that he’s never seen.”

Roger snorted.  “If ye say so.  Well, whether it’s the only one there is or not, it’s the only one we could get to, I’m pretty sure o’ that.”  She waited for Aidan to correct her, and seemed satisfied when he made no attempt to do so.  “So here we are.  About to ram right into that there hunk o’ rock, unless our Guide here can get these waves under control.”  She looked at Aidan with some challenge in her eyes, but she offered her gloved hand to help him up.

Aidan accepted her offer and let her pull him forcibly to his feet.  He put out his staff to lean against; he still looked unsteady and weak.  Johnny rose as well; Larissa had sidled down the railing to join them at the front of the boat, where they could all see that The Slyph was indeed drifting straight for the jagged spur of rock that thrust above the still fairly gentle waves.  The rock was too small to be considered an island; it was probably no bigger around than a small house, although it towered perhaps fifty feet above the surface of the water.  Now that they could see it more clearly, they could tell that nothing grew on it, although it had a collection of seabirds perched in its various clefts.  Most prominent were huge, shaggy brown pelicans, which looked more like caricatures of pelicans than actual birds.  They were each as heavy as a person, easily, and their throat sacs hung as low as the bottoms of their broad chests.  There were black and white birds that Johnny thought looked like gigantic seagulls, but Larissa murmured “no, more like an albatross.”  And, in the very highest reaches, some of the soft gray birds with the feathered batwings, which were so far the only evidence Johnny had seen that there was any living species shared between swamp and lagoon.

Aidan took all this in, then looked right and left to see if there were any other upcoming crises he needed to be aware of.  Nothing but mist as far as the eye could see.  Turning back to the rock, he raised his staff once again, and began chanting in his strange liquid language.  His voice cracked a bit; suddenly Bones was there, uncharacteristically quiet, and upended a pitcher of water over Aidan’s head.  Instead of spluttering angrily, though, Aidan seemed to gain strength from being drenched, and his voice grew a bit stronger.  Suddenly the ship seemed to settle down into the water somehow, as if it had suddenly gained weight, or grown a significant portion of hull below the waterline.  It slowed its pace, and the waves now seemed to be breaking against the sides of the craft instead of carrying it along.  Roger turned around and hauled ass back to the stern, where Johnny heard the great fan start up.  Instead of moving the ship forward, she turned it, hard, and it spun slowly, until it was broadside to the rocky outcropping.  Gently it bumped up against the rough stone, which Johnny could now see was pitted and twisted so much it looked like coral.  Several of the birds fluttered in an ungainly fashion as the ship touched their perch, and two or three of the closer pelicans positively glared at them.

Roger reappeared, her hands on her hips and her pervasive smile returned.  “Just had to make sure we didn’t snap the sylph off The Sylph,” she said.  Johnny understood: if she hadn’t turned the ship, the figurehead might have gone into a hole or crevisse in the rocks and gotten severely damaged.

Bones was handing another pitcher to Aidan, who took a long draught before returning it.  “Thankee, Bones, you were very helpful there,” Aidan said.  Bones bobbed his head and clicked his beak, then scampered away.

Roger stepped up to the Water Guide.  “Good job, Aidan,” she said in a low voice.  “I thought ye weren’t up to the task for a mite.”

He didn’t return her smile.  “This isn’t an ordinary job,” he said.

She let her face grow serious for a moment.  “I know that, matey.  I appreciate ye takin’ it on.  ‘Specially not knowin’ where we’ll be fetchin’ up.”

“Oh, I think we both know where we’ll end up.”  Aidan looked directly into her eyes.

Roger’s smile broke back out.  “Well, we’ll just see about that, won’t we?”  Weirdly, she clapped Aidan on the butt.  Aidan just shook his head at this and said nothing.

“Let me skin this tub around this here rockpile and we’ll see if we can see a bit better,” Roger said as she headed back to the wheelhouse.  Ever so slowly the ship pulled away from its position, scraping its side against the rough promontory.  After she got it disengaged, Roger gunned the throttle and swung the ship around the outcrop.  The birds watched them impassively, their heads turning in a weird synchrony.  The ship paralleled the rocks for a few moments, then suddenly swung out of the mist.

It was like they had gone from swamp to sea.  The air was hot, but not the sticky, oppressive heat they had left behind.  This was equatorial, open-ocean heat, with a sea breeze carrying the tang of salt.  The blue, blue water stretched all around them, as far as anyone could see.  There was still no sun, but the quality of the light had changed from fading daylight to just a few hours off high noon.  Still, pockets of mist were everywhere, and off in the middle distance was a small patch of sand with a single palm tree—a cartoon version of a desert island.  Johnny breathed in the sea air and stared around in wonder.  Larissa looked with her wide eyes but said nothing.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Vacationus Persistus

That's right, boys and girls: I'm still on vacation. I was going to try to get something written for you anyway, but it just hasn't turned out that way. Don't cry into your spilled soup though; I'll have something for you next week. Promise.