Sunday, November 19, 2017

Heart is where the Home Is

Things around our house are finally getting back to normal after the Smaller Animal’s surgery.  Make sure you’ve read last week’s update, if you haven’t already.  This will be the final update here, barring anything new and major coming up.  Next week I hope to get back around to entirely-surgery-unrelated topics.

And that’s primarily because there just isn’t much to report.  He’s been to both his regular cardiologist for a standard check-up, and back to the hospital for removal of suture, staple, and steri-strips.1  Everyone who’s seen him agrees that he’s doing amazingly well.  He’s almost completely back to normal, aside from repeated attempts to scratch his chest (which we have to discourage, according to the docs and nurses).  We’ve finally started putting the brakes on lording it over his siblings, and, while they can’t go back to physically trying to kill each other, they’ve pretty much all graduated from the “we’re being nice to you because you might have died” phase and have moved on to the “I’d forgotten how much of a pain in my ass you can be” phase.  Which is actually sort of nice, oddly, in that it represents a return to normalcy.

Of course, he still has to wash his chest with two separate washcloths and can’t allow the shower to spray directly on it.  That keeps up until the scabs finish forming and then fall off.  He also can’t submerge the incision (so no baths or hot tubbing) or put any cream or lotion on it2 until all the pinkish-redness fades completely.  And even then, no riding in the front seat or doing anything that might involve falling or getting hit until a full 8 weeks has passed, which is also when his sibling can go back to tackling him and sitting on him and whatnot, presumably.3

During this healing phase, his skin is being held together by that dissolvable stitch, and his bones are actually held together by a thin wire.  This wire is now a permanent fixture of the Smaller Animal’s body.  It’s not enough to set off metal detectors,4 but we have to notify anyone that wants to give him a CAT scan or MRI in the future that it will produce a blurry area in their readouts.  I believe I reported previously that his elder sibling was pretty jazzed about him now having a bit of a dead person in him.5  The demonspawn had already proclaimed that this made their little brother “undead.”  Now that they know there’s a bit of metal in him as well, they’ve proclaimed this makes him an undead cyborg.  What more can one ask for in a brother?

I suppose this is the point in a life-changing experience where we typically stop and reflect on what we’ve learned.  But I’m not entirely sure what that is, other than how incredibly lucky we are.6  Lucky to live in a major metropolitan area, where it just so happens that one of the best cardiac valve replacement surgeons in the country—if not the entire world—is also living and practicing medicine.  Lucky to have made it 11½ years on a leaky valve, to the point where my kid is nearly 5 feet tall and just over a hundred pounds, which gave him a much better shot at a positive outcome.  Lucky to have a kid who’s put up with all this massive amount of pain and discomfort with hardly any complaining at all.  Lucky to have friends and family who have been very supportive, a job where I could take as much time as I needed, a homeschool group who’s been feeding us for two weeks now so we haven’t had to cook.  All of these things have contributed to this experience being far gentler than we had any right to expect, and I thank all of you folks reading this, all those folks not reading this who nonetheless contributed in some way, and whatever engine runs the universe—be it random, kharmic, or divine—for having this play out as it did.

It’s possible that we were supposed to learn to be kinder to each other with the limited time we have on this earth.  But then I think that lesson was already pretty much in our faces from the time the kid was born, so I’m hesitant to fall back on that old chestnut.  It’s also possible that we were supposed to learn that it pays not to rush into big life decisions, particularly those that are medical in nature, without doing lots of research (which we obviously did, in this case).  Or maybe there’s no lesson at all—maybe Patton Oswalt is right and everything is chaos and we should just be kind.  I’m okay with that too.  It’s just that, if the universe were trying to tell me something, I’d hate to miss it.

At the end of the day, our kid is home, desperately trying to beat Breath of the Wild on his new Nintendo Switch and chilling out by watching the new Punisher series with me.7  He’s sleeping well, which I know because he’s sleeping with me, at least temporarily.  We all feel better if there’s someone next to him in case he has an issue in the middle of the night, and his old sleeping place—the top bunk in the demonspawn’s room—is not really an option right now.  While he was in the hospital, I started reading him a book—the first book in the Wednesday Tales trilogy.8  Now, at night when he goes to bed, I’ve started reading it again, trying to finish it up.  It’s been a long time since he was willing to sit and listen to me read to him.  I hadn’t realized that I missed it.  But I guess I did.  It’s nice.  I’m really enjoying it now.  Not sure that counts as a lesson, but ...

I think I’ll take it.


1 For those who like medical details:  The suture was to close the hole where his chest tube was poking out.  The staple was at the bottom of his dissolvable stitch, and I assume it was just there to keep the stitch from unraveling prematurely.  The steri-strips were basically just little strips of packing tape that were holding the incision closed along with the stitch.

2 Not even neosporin, which is making me crazy.

3 Fun fact: 8 weeks from his surgery date is exactly January 1st.  So I fully expect the day after New Year’s Day to be pretty crazy around here.

4 Currently.  The doctor pointed out that they it’s always possible that they might make more sensitive metal detectors in the future.

5 This would be the cadaveric valve installed as part of the Ross procedure.

6 If you are religiiously inclined, you may wish to substitute “blessed” for “lucky.”  Go ahead.  I won’t stop you.

7 Both highly recommended, by the way.

8 Also highly recommended.  Even more so, really.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Heart Homecoming

Well, I’m a bit tuckered out tonight, but I have time for a quick update on the Smaller Animal’s surgery.

We brought him into Children’s Hospital at 7am on Monday; they took him back for surgery around 9:15am.  By that point he was already doped up and feeling pretty happy.  By 1pm he was back in ICU, his Ross Procedure a great success.  His surgeon stopped by to let us know that all had gone well, but it was a very short conversation—Dr. Starnes is a man of few words.  The patient was, as expected, very groggy for most of the rest of that day, although he could recognize us and answer questions ... well, yes or no questions, at least: they didn’t take out his breathing tube until around 1am.  By the next morning he was sitting up and playing his new Switch; by dinner, he was already up to eating meatballs and peas.  After dinner, they removed the chest tube—it was the only time that he would cry (or even complain) while in the ICU.

On Wednesday he started doing walks around the floor.  That night, they finally removed his dressing and we got to see his cool new Frankenstein scar.  By Thursday morning, they were prepping him to go home.  A little after noon, we left the hospital.  (This, by the way, was more than a day earlier than we were told was the absolute minimum stay he could expect.  Which is pretty positive, overall.)

Life at home was a little better than in the ICU, as you might imagine.  He had his familiar food around him, no one was telling him he couldn’t eat bread because it’s made with milk and his stupid parents made the mistake of mentioning he’s lactose-intolerant (for the record: lactose intolerant does not mean you can’t consume anything that’s been waved near a cow), and everyone was falling over themselves to do things for him.  He got to sit on the reclining couch and he didn’t even have to put the legs up (or down) himself.  We finished up the new season of Stranger Things in 2 or 3 marathon sessions.  The Lasix (a diuretic) they had him on was killing us, because it made him need to pee every 15 minutes (if not more often), and getting up and down off the sofa when your breastbone has been cracked in half and jammed back together and wrapped up with a wire is not so easy.  But it wasn’t so bad, and he never complained, or even asked for more pain meds.

Which brings us to today.  Early this morning he developed a headache that was so bad it made him cry—and, remember, this was only the second time he had cried since his surgery, and the first time was when they pulled a big tube out of his chest and cinched up the skin around the hole by just yanking the sutures taut.  So it was obviously pretty bad.  Then he started complaining of nausea, and then the barfing commenced.  Needless to say, we took him back to the hospital.  Now, in general, going to the emergency room with a sick kid is a pointless exercise that consumes hours upon hours of your life and, in the end, your kid just gets better on their own and the doctors do absolutely nothing you couldn’t have done yourself.  I would love to tell you that it’s different when you have a kid that just had heart surgery under a week ago, but unfortunately that would be a lie.  But, on the plus side, they took another chest X-ray, which indicated that all the fluid is out of his lungs, which means he can get off the Lasix, which was probably the source of the problem all along.  Guess what happens when you’re peeing every 5 to 15 minutes?  You get dehydrated.  Know what the symptoms of dehydration are?  Major headaches and barfing.  So I guess that was something we couldn’t do at home after all.

Anyhow, the upshot is that, tonight, he’s been more animated than I’ve seen him in quite a while.  (Because, you know, even in the days before the surgery, the nerves and stress meant that he was a bit more subdued than usual.)  But tonight he was joking around with his siblings, doing a lot more things on his own, actually excited about eating for a change ... actually showing some signs that this whole ripping-him-open-and-putting-him-back-together thing might have left him better off than before.  Which we’re all pretty excited about, obviously.

So, it’s been quite an ordeal, and a very stressful week where none of us got much sleep—and the sleep we did get was absolutely terrible: I’ll probably have to go to the chiropractor every day next week to unkink all the joints that I’ve ruined from sleeping at the hospital—but I think the end is in sight.  We would like to thank our doctors—Dr. Starnes, who did the operation; Dr. Leong, his regular cardiologist; and Dr. Wong, a partner of Dr. Leong’s who visited him in the hospital several times and had the final say on getting him out so quickly—and our nurses—Kristen, Nicole, Natalie, Amber, and Sofya—and Leon, our respiratory tech who got his breathing tube out so he could talk again.  And we’d like to thank all of our friends and family who sent us their positive energy, in whatever method they were most comfortable doing.  Plus a big shout-out to our homeschooling group, who’s been feeding us since we got home by dropping off food every day so we don’t have to think about cooking.  All of you have been a great help and have made it much easier to get through this.

Looking forward to happier days ahead.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Final approach to heart repair

First, a recap, so you know what we’re talking about:

So, this post is reaching you in between our pre-surgery appointment, which was this past Friday, and the actual surgery, which is tomorrow (as you read this).  Since we’ve had another trip to the hospital—far more medical than our last one, which was mostly about talking to the doctor—I can now also give you an even more thorough

Brief medical breakdown (for those who like gory details):

  • The exact procedure being done is called the Ross procedure.
    • Side note: the nurse practitioner said that Dr. Starnes will attempt to do an aortic valve repair, which would theoretically obviate the need for a replacement valve altogether.
    • Of course, Dr. Starnes himself never mentioned this; presumably that’s because the chances of success are slim, and he didn’t want to get our hopes up.
    • Therefore, we’re not getting our hopes up.
  • The replacement valve will be a cadaveric valve, also called a “homograft.”
  • The surgery will take about 4 hours.
  • We will be arriving at CHLA at 7am.  No food after 11pm the night before (not a problem, as he’ll be asleep by then), and no liquids after 5:30am.
  • He will come into the ICU with chest tubes and wires; hopefully already extubated.*  He’ll be on morphine until the tubes and wires are gone (which will hopefully be in under 24 hours) and then on Lortab (i.e. oxycodone) and OTC painkillers (e.g. Tylenol) after that.
  • He’ll be getting back to solid food as quickly as he’ll tolerate it.  Also, they will encourage him to get up and moving as soon as he can; it helps with drainage, apparently.
  • He will most likely be in the hospital for a total of 5 – 7 days.
    • During this time, mother, father, and older sibling (who is over 18) can be in the room at any time.
    • Younger sibling will not be allowed in at all (due to “flu season”), so hopefully he can get out of bed and come to her when she visits.  Otherwise, Google Hangouts.

Practical stuff, if you’re here to see what our schedule will be:

  • I will be completely off from work for the week (I actually started as of Friday, due to the pre-surgery appointment).  I may poke my head into the chat rooms, just because there will be lots of waiting and I may get bored.  Or then again I may not.  Nice to have the freedom.
  • The following week I will return to work, but perhaps not physically.  I’ll probably work from home at least part of the week, depending on where we’re at with the recovery period.  I’m very lucky to have a job where I can totally play that by ear.**
  • Similarly, I will probably not be doing anything related to any of my online responsibilities, including but not limited to my position as admin at, my various CPAN modules, and this very blog.***  But then again I might.  If I get bored.
  • The Mother will likely not be doing anything for the entire two weeks (if not longer).
  • The demonspawn (our eldest) will be missing classes on Monday (already cleared with the professors), but returning to class on Wednesday.
  • The sprite (our youngest) is just on extended vacation for a few weeks.

Final thoughts:

Time is winding down until this whole ordeal is over, one way or another.  I hope for a good outcome.  I even go so far as to expect a good outcome, as best I can.  I would like to believe that the universe is not done with my son, even if it’s only to keep teaching me valuable lessons about what’s important in life.  But the truth is, anything can happen.  And, as I pointed out in one of those other posts above, it’s ostensibly true that anything can happen at any time, and I try to remember that as much as possible.  But having that “anything” shoved down your throat with a bunch of fatalistic (literally) medical forms is an unusually stark reminder of the mortality of your loved ones.  Bit of a signpost for the fragility of life, and routine, and family.

Except that’s wrong.  Family is not fragile.  This past week the two younger kids (or “the littles,” as we sometimes call them) went to CostCo with The Mother.  While there, they picked out giant teddy bears (not quite as big as they are, but pretty close): one with a dress, and one with a T-shirt and jeans.  These were promptly named after themselves, and it was agreed that, when the Smaller Animal went to the hospital, he would take the girl-bear with him, and the sprite would keep the boy-bear with her.  You know, as traveling representatives.  So that, no matter how far apart they are in the coming week, they’ll have each other, via proxy bear.  That’s the strength of my family.

No matter how difficult it may be for me to remain positive, my son has no such problems.  He continues to smile regularly and make jokes.  As I write this, he’s in the other room playing video games with one of his best friends, who’s spending the night with him in a tent on the floor of our front room.  He’s having fun.  I’m doing my best to be inspired by how well he’s taking it.  I’d like to tell you I’m being strong for him, but I think it might actually be other way around.

So we’re going to keep on supporting each other, and clinging to each other, and we’re going to get through this.  I can’t yet see how it’s going to come out in the end, but I know that, whatever happens, we’ll be stronger for having had each other, and for having had this wonderful child.  Now it’s time to see what the future has to offer.

For those of you who know us personally—and/or who just feel so inclined—we will gratefully accept your positive energies, be they in the form of prayers, rituals, spells, or just good vibes, should any of those be a thing you believe in.  And, even if not, thank all of you for your support and friendship throughout the years.

Once we have further news, I will be disseminating the information as best I can.  If you’re connected to me on Facebook, there will likely be a post there, as well as one in the chat rooms at work.  Barring that, I may try to return and edit this post with the outcome at some point.  Worst case scenario is you’ll just have to wait a week.  But probably not.

Thanks again.

UPDATE: As of Tuesday morning (11/7/17), the Smaller Animal had a successful surgery, is back in ICU, and finally got his breathing tube out (at around 1am).  The surgeon said the procedure went well; he did look at repairing the valve, but it wasn’t feasible, so they went ahead with the Ross procedure.  (Or, as his older sibling put it, “there’s a little piece of a dead person in him now ... it’s kinda neat.”)  He’s talking, more or less alert, and surprisingly not complaining about the myriad of tubes still sticking out of him.  So he’s a trooper, and he’s doing great.

Thx to everyone for your positive energy.  We all appreciate it.


* That means with the breathing tube removed.

** And thank you very much to my bosses, who have been extremely supportive throughout this process.

*** For more info on my online responsibilities, you could read my posts about Heroscape, CPAN, and the masthead paradox.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Fun Times

This weekend we celebrated my birthday.  It’s not actually my birthday yet, but next weekend will not be particularly useful in terms of celebrating anything (see also the surgery announcement).  So we decided to do the birthday weekend thing a week early.  We didn’t do much, really.  We watched Baby Driver, which was quite good.  We completed our rewatch of season 1 of Stranger Things and got about 3 episodes deep into season 2.  We played a game of Munchkin Wonderland and started a massive 2v1 game of Heroscape: snakes and wolves working with elementals on offense, vs a vast legion of Romans and Cathars on defense.  We ate out at a new(ish) Italian deli, which was pretty nice.  And I got to sleep till noon both days and my family did all my chores for me.  So, you know: can’t complain.

Disneyland on Thursday was, mercifully, not as hot as we feared.  It was, however, a comedy of errors in practically every other way.  We left late, and we had to get gas first.  I accidentally drove to the wrong gas station—the one where they refuse to take any credit card—and then when I said, fine, just run my card as a debit card and I’ll pay your moronic 50¢ fee or whatever it was, it didn’t work anyway.  So we had to drive to the proper gas station anyway and start over.  I plugged my phone into the car charger to make sure it stayed fully charged despite the fact I was running Waze the whole way, but it turns out it wasn’t plugged in all the way, so I started out the day at 50% battery, which started dropping rapidly.  (Yes, my battery is pretty well borked.)  Still better than my eldest, whose phone is completely dead and not yet replaced (on account of being 19 years old means your parents are no longer responsible for fixing everything for you, so things have a tendency to just not get fixed).  We decided to start the day at California Adventure, since it closed at 8 (the main park wasn’t closing until 11pm).  We heard that the new(ish) Cars-themed ride was closed, which was a bummer, since we’ve never ridden it, but we decided to head over to the even newer Guardians of the Galaxy ride, which we’ve also never ridden.  When we got there, they’d just closed “to switch over to the Hallowe’en theme.”  So we figured we’d get a Fastpass time and come back later, but they’d closed the Fastpass too.  So we dawdled a bit in A Bug’s Land, then decided to check out Radiator Springs even if the main ride was closed.  But they’d actually reopened it, and the wait time was only 60 minutes, which is long, but not that long, especially for a good ride that you’ve never been on before.  After 15 minutes of waiting, they announced that the wait time was more like 90 minutes.  15 more minutes and the wait time was officially up to 105 minutes.  It turns out that the problem was, if you have a Fastpass time but the ride is closed then, your Fastpass becomes officially good for any for the remainder of the day.  So all those people with Fastpass times while the ride was closed were now coming back, on top of the people who actually had Fastpass times for that actual time window.  With the end result that they were letting more Fastpass people than “regular” people in, so us regular folks got screwed.  You know how frustrating it is to get 3 people away from the final lining up and then get stopped while 50 Fastpass people go streaming in ahead of you?  I mean, it was a good ride, in the end, but still.  After that we decided to go back to the main park and the littlest one starts freaking out about buying a balloon.  Not now, we say: wait until we’re on the way out.  We’re not lugging a damn balloon around while we’re trying to ride rides.  So that was a thing.  Then the Smaller Animal insisted we take the train to New Orleans instead of walking, which is fine, sort of, except that, by the time you have to wait in line for the stupid train, it ends up taking longer than it would to just walk.  And we’re all hungry as hell because it’s past dinner time at this point.  So I try to get us into the Orleans Café, but they’re only doing reservations.  So, fine: the French Market Restaurant—they don’t have the gumbo, but at least I can get red beans and rice.  Except, no, they took that off the menu.  Sigh.  Okay, fine, give me the “New Orleans beef stew,” whatever that is.  I’ll try something new.  Actually, we just ran out of that; sorry, sir.  Seriously?  So I just got a salad.  Then we were going to go into the Haunted Mansion, but the wait time was 90 minutes and we just couldn’t go through that again.  So then the Smaller Animal wanted to do the Winne-the-Pooh ride, but only because he’d heard there was someplace on the ride where you can see “an animal or something” if you turn around and look behind you at some point on the ride.  (For the record, it’s 3 stuffed-and-mounted heads way up close to the ceiling: moose, bear, and something else ... wolf, maybe.)  But he couldn’t remember when you were supposed to turn around.  So we spent the whole time craning our necks around, which was a real problem for me because I’d already developed a weird crick in my neck from sleeping badly the night before or something.  So then we figured we’d give Pirates of the Caribbean a shot, ’cause the line wasn’t too bad, but it was still 45 minutes of more waiting.  Then we had to get back on the train because the Littles demanded to see the dinosaurs (the littlest one informed us that she hadn’t seen dinosaurs “for 6 minutes—maybe more!”  By that time, it was after 10:30, so we figured we’d call it a night.  Time to find that balloon the little one wanted ... except the balloon sellers had apparently already packed it in for the night.  This engendered a good 15 minutes’ worth of panic, as we desperately tried to avoid a full-blown meltdown.  We finally compromised on buying her a Little Mermaid bubble wand, because, you know: bubbles.  Then we left the park, with Waze telling us that we could be home in a little over an hour: well under half as long as it took us to get there.  Great, we figure.  Maybe just make a quick stop to get a couple milkshakes or something to help us stay awake.  Trying to get Waze to point you at a useful McDonald’s, though, can be tricky.  It forces you to pick which McDonald’s you want to go to, which isn’t very helpful if you have no idea where you are.  I want one that is right off the freeway, and has a drive-through, and isn’t located inside a Wal-Mart, and isn’t already behind us.  How the fuck am I supposed to know which of the 5 McDonald’s-es in the list that is?  We eventually ended up at an In-and-Out (probably a better milkshake anyhow), except we were behind like 20 cars and we didn’t move for 10 minutes.  So we gave up and found a McDonald’s.  Started to order and they said sorry, we’re out of ice cream; what else can I get for you?  Nothing.  You can get nothing for me, because I WANT FUCKING ICE CREAM.  So we finally find a different McDonald’s, and they do have ice cream, but they’re only accepting cash, because their cash registers are all down (literally, they are using pen and paper to calculate the order totals).  So now we’re all scrambling for enough cash and The Mother is pointing out that we actually would have been home by now if we’d just driven straight through, and of course we don’t know how much cash we need because they have to write everything down and carry the 2 and all that shit, and, long story short (HAH!) we ended up getting home at like 1am.

So that was a fun time.  I mean, really it was, and I’m glad we went one last time, but I can’t help but feel like fate was sort of thumbing its nose at us or something.

And now we’re on final countdown.  5 days till the pre-surgery appointment.  7 days until we find out what time the surgery will be, and if they have a room for us at the Ronald McDonald House.  8 days until surgery.  Should be a fun time.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Counting down

Well, we’re winding down the long, stressful march towards the Smaller Animal’s surgery.  Next week is our final trip to Disneyland on this year’s season passes.  This past week I gave a talk at LA Perl Mongers (a.k.a., despite coming off the tail of a 24-hour bug that kept me home from work that day.  Hopefully I didn’t get any of the fellow Mongers sick.

The Smaller Animal and I are trying to work through the new Defenders series before the surgery, and the whole family is rewatching Stranger Things in preparation for season 2.  And of course The Mother and I will be glued to the tube tonight for the Walking Dead season premiere tonight.

And that’s pretty much it.  Working on a few financial things this weekend to get that stuff out of the way, and happy that there’s not something big going on.  Next weekend we’ll get my birthday celebration out of the way a bit early, and the weekend after that, it’s surgery showtime.

Watched Patton Oswalt’s latest Netflix special last night.  He says his late wife hated when people said “everything happens for a reason.”  There’s no reasons (she would say), there’s no order; we just have to be as good to each other as we can every day because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.  Or, as Patton put it:

Everything is chaos; be kind.

I kinda like that.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

NHSD 2017: Quick Results

As expected, there’s still no time for a proper post this week.  However, I can comment just a bit on our National Heroscape Day tournament.  As per last year, let’s start with a few refreshers:


Last year I brought 6 participants to make a total turnout of 11, plus one person who arrived late; this year I brought 7 for a turnout of 13, but one person had to leave early.  Which is fairly promising, all in all—we’re increasing or at least remaining steady, for a game that has been out of print for 7 years.  Not too shoddy.  We’re keeping the dream alive.

Anyhow, this year I lost all my games, which was even more crushing on account of they were all against people I brought to the tourney.  First the demonspawn beat me, then the Smaller Animal beat me, then the Smaller Animal’s best friend beat me, thus leading to this conversation between me and my oldest:

“You got beat by a nine year old!”

“Hey!  He’s ten!”

But I don’t mind.  I don’t go to the tourneys to win; I go to have fun, and I think we all had a great time.  The Smaller Animal was a bit disappointed in his performance, but I say he did pretty damn well: in his first game, he managed to take out half the army of the person who ended up winning the entire thing, and he only lost the last game because his opponent had a bit of a run of good luck.  Not really all that bad for an 11 year old.  This year he played an army consisting primarily of Quahon, the big blue dragon who breathes lightning bolts; Sujoah, the giant dragonfly with a poison stinger; and a few squads of giant spiders.  It’s a pretty solid army overall, and I’m sorry to see him get down on it.

The demonspawn did better, winning two games with an army composed of Morgoloth (the demon darklord), mezzodemons, and wolves.  But the day went to our old friend “hivelord” (his forum name), who won every game, beating out his own dad in the final round.

After the tournament, we went on to play a quite cutthroat game of Exploding Kittens, which the Smaller Animal and his best friend won: they deicded to work together after the best friend killed the SA by accident while trying to knock off his brother.  All in all, a long day, but totally worth it.  Hopefully we can manage to get together sometime before next year’s tournament.


* If you do read that, remember that “Xotli” is my codename there.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Busy busy month

This week, instead of giving you a proper post, I’m going to tell you why I don’t have time to give you a proper post.

As it turns out, this month is turning into quite the crazy one.  There are many factors contributing to that; obviously the biggest one is the Smaller Animal’s upcoming surgery, which is right at the beginning of November.  So a lot of crap has to get taken care of prior to that.  For instance, the surgery is the day after my birthday.  So obviously that weekend is not a particularly good one for a birthday weekend celebration.  As a result, we’ll be celebrating my birthday the weekend before, which is actually before Hallowe’en, even.  Hallowe’en, by the way, is another thing that we have to spend some time preparing for: our eldest was never candy-motivated the way the younger two are, so this level of dedication to dressing up and begging strangers for food is a bit more recent for us.  So there are costumes to buy, routes to plan, etc.

October is also the month for National Heroscape Day.  Due to a convergence of a few factors, we’re getting a pretty late start on prep for that annual tournament.  And it’s not a “preparation light” sort of event.  As small as it’s been getting lately, there’s still quite a bit of work to be done, and I haven’t really started yet.  And I’m down to a week and a half to get it all done (as I write this; even less by the time you read it).  It’s going to be tight this year.

I also got an invite from the moderator of our local Perl group to speak this month.  Well, it serves me right for writing a Perl blog post a few weeks ago and then posting on Facebook about it.  But, it’s been a long time since I did a talk there and I can probably handle this one with mininmal prep time.  Which is a good thing, because minimal prep time is all I’ve got.

Right now, though, I don’t have time to do any of that prep, because I’ve got to finish my online traffic school course before the court-appointed deadline, or else I won’t be able to afford my car insurance any more.  Yeah, I got another ticket.  First one in a while ... my incidence of traffic tickets went way down after I bought that radar detector.  Best investment I ever made.  But, you know, every once in a while, your reflexes just aren’t quick enough to hit the brakes before the cop tags you.  Still, one ticket in 5 years: that’s a definite improvement.  For me.

Still, the big ticket item is getting ready for that upcoming surgery.  We’re hoping to get one last trip to Disneyland out of our season tickets before the date, and pretty much anything else the kid wants, he gets.  We’ve also got one mental health appointment scheduled, and I’m hoping to get another.  I’m not really sure there can be really be too much mental preparation for this sort of event.  But there’s also more mundane aspects to worry about: The Mother just recently reminded me that we need to start compiling a list of all the people we need to update once the surgery is done.  Lots of folks to call or email, posts to social media to make, etc etc etc.  So surgery prep is pretty overwhelming all on its own, never minding all the other prep I’ve been pondering.  And of course it’s not like life in general stopped: there’s still dishes to be done and bills to be paid and children (furry, scaly, and smooth-skinned alike) to be fed and work hours to be worked and clothes to be washed and groceries to be bought and ...

I suppose I could bow out of at least some of those things.  But, no: that’s what I’ve decided to do with this month.  I rather think that keeping as busy as I can physically manage is the only way I’m going to remain sane.  If I give myself too much time to ponder what’s coming up, I may not make it through.  So it’s a busy month, and the downside of that is that you’re not likely to see too many proper blog posts this month ... maybe even none at all.  But I will try to put up something every week, even if it’s only a few sentences.  But, honestly, I’m not even promising that much.  We’ll just have to see how it all plays out.  In the meantime, wish me luck.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Wisty Mysteria I

"Silent Sunset Orange Cloud"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

You may remember back when we talked about Rose-Coloured Brainpanover 2 years ago, now—that I mentioned Depression, the first of the “proto-mixes.”  One of the biggest reasons I refer to anything from that period as “proto” is because those mixes were just random collections of songs.  There was some small amount of thought as to theme, but no real coherent throughline, nothing that would tie the songs together to form something like an album.  By the time I got to college1 I understood that a mix tape needed to be more than a loosely related collection of randomly ordered tracks.  I started to make mixes that were much closer to an album: tracks that fit together to form a picture, and were laid out in an order that told a story.  Now, I still hadn’t learned what the inimitable Hearts of Space was to teach me a few years later—all the stuff about transitions and thematics that I’ve discussed many times beforebut I was making progress.  These were what I call the “pre-modern” mixes, and the very first one I made was an attempt to create a refinement of Depression.

So, as I’ve said before, the biggest problem with Depression is that its picks were all over the place.  The songs from that proto-mix are now scattered across several modern mixes, such as Rose-Coloured Brainpan, Tenderhearted Nightshade, and Darkling Embrace.  Each of these captures a much narrower slice of the range that Depression was trying to examine.  But before any of those mixes, I started with something that would be a little sad, but not too much—sort of wistful, so to speak.  Something where many songs would have a bit of a creepy or mysterious vibe, but again not too much so.  So it would be a little bit wistful and a little bit mysterious, and the first thing I came up with was “Misty Wisteria”: the mist provides the mystery factor, and the wisteria provides the association with sadness via scenarios like doomed gothic romances.  But eventually I just swapped the initial consonants and ended up with far more direct analogs of “wistful” and “mysterious,” but the fact that neither is an actual word encourages the listener’s ear to do the transposition and end up with the original phrase anyway.  Wisty Mysteria was not only the first of the pre-modern mixes, it was also the first to use my weird naming convention.2

The pre-modern mixes were developed in the early 90s, so, just as we saw on HipHop Bottlerocket (whose songs all lived in the very narrow timeband of 1988 – 1990, except for 2 throwbacks to the late 70s), we have a similar situation here.  This time we widen the band somewhat: 1986 – 1991, with a single mid-70s throwback.3  But you still need to be feeling nostalgic for that period from the late 80s to the early 90s to properly enjoy this volume to its fullest.  We even have several crossover artists from HHB, such as Fishbone, Dramarama, Concrete Blonde, and Jane’s Addiction.  Which is pretty strange if you think about it ... Wisty Mysteria is nearly diametrically opposed to HipHop Bottlerocket, thematically.  But that just shows what range some of these bands have.

I think this is a fairly faithful recreation of the original Wisty Mysteria, though theoretically the original should have had more tracks.4  Plus I threw in an extra track at the end: “The Last Resort,” by the Eagles.  I just felt like the mix needed a stronger closer, and “Last Resort” is a melancholy, slow tune that makes good use of Don Henley’s voice to make some stinging commentary on commercialism and religion.  And it’s just a good closer.

So, on the “wisty” side, the saddest song on here is perhaps “Walking in the Woods,” by the Pursuit of Happiness, a Canadian band who are best known for their insanely catchy 1989 hit “I’m an Adult Now.”  Musically, the song is not as downbeat as you might expect, but listen to the words at your own risk: they’ve been known to bring an actual tear to my eye on occasion.  Second must well be a-ha’s “Manhattan Skyline,” where Morten Harket sings “I don’t want to race this pain.”  I also tend to find “Heart of Stone” (by the highly underappreciated Dreams So Real) a bit tear-jerking; certainly the lyrics “she’s gone away ... I’m so alone, and all I own is a heart of stone” is a big clue.  And yet there’s something that’s also not-sad about this tune: its power chords are cathartic, somehow.  And that tends to be where a lot of the choices here land.

“You’re Still Beautiful” by the Church, for instance, with its ode to fading beauty, or “Little Conversations” by Concrete Blonde, which I’ve always felt is a perfect recollection of late-night chats with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t really attracted to you and is too oblivious to notice your feelings for them.  Or perhaps “Part of Me Now” by the Lucy Show, which seems to warn “please don’t break my heart,” or “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me)?” by the Spin Doctors, which expresss all the puzzlement that its title implies.  Even “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” by the BoDeans, which is clearly a story of abandonment (“Jenny Rae left me late last fall; didn’t say much, she just left, that’s all”), is somehow not particularly sad about it.5

On the “mysteria” side, some of the songs here are more obscure; it’s not always clear what they are about.  Is “Blue Green” (by local-to-my-college-town band Hearsay) about drowning?  Does “The Woods” by the Call symbolize a tangled forest inside one’s heart?  Is the echoey, repeated call of “home” in “Up the Beach” by Jane’s Addiction supposed to be welcoming or ominous?

“Obsession” might be about sitting alone with someone you care about in a candlelit room ... but then why does it sound so gothy and dark?  (Probably because it’s from goth-master Ronny Moorings, during his Xymox phase.6)  “Fireplace, Pool & Air Conditioning” by Dramarama is ostensibly a song about seduction (“I’ll take you home ...”), but its surreal lyrics (one of which provides our volume title) hint at something more.

Note that most of these bands are more noted for upbeat songs (or at least mid-tempo), but these tunes showcase their softer sides.  Just as the band that sings “Manhattan Skyline” is the same one that brought you the ultra-pop 80s hit “Take On Me,” so do many of the tracks above share bands and even albums with much more upbeat songs: “The Last Resort” is from the same album as “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Little Conversations” shares a disc with “God Is a Bullet,” “How Could You Want Him?” accompanies the so-poppy-it’s-almost-silly “Two Princes” ... hell, even Dramarama, not necessarily known for hard rockin’, was last seen in this series belting out “Last Cigarette” on HipHop Bottlerocket.  Also on that mix was “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” by the amazing (and eclectic) Fishbone.  Here they provide our opener: “Pouring Rain.”  This is not really a sad song, but it sure ain’t a happy one.  A taste of the lyrics:

He had one foot in the gutter,
Another on dry land.
His ship had sailed without him.
Across life’s burning sands,
He cried out in the distance.
And no one, no one heard a word
For a prophet’s not respected
in his own world.

Even Walter Kibby’s trumpet has a lonely feel to it ... hell, even Norwood’s bass sounds like it’s echoing in a vast, empty space.  I always thought it was the perfect opener here.

Wisty Mysteria I
    [Silent Sunset Orange Cloud]

        “Pouring Rain” by Fishbone, off Truth and Soul
        “Obsession” by Xymox, off Twist of Shadows
        “Velveteen” by Transvision Vamp, off Velveteen
        “Part of Me Now” by The Lucy Show, off Mania
        “Manhattan Skyline” by a-ha, off Scoundrel Days
        “You're Still Beautiful” by The Church, off Gold Afternoon Fix
        “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?)” by Spin Doctors, off Pocket Full of Kryptonite
        “Little Conversations” by Concrete Blonde, off Free
        “Blue Green” by Hearsay, off Triggerfish
        “Heart of Stone” by Dreams So Real, off Rough Night in Jericho
        “Fireplace, Pool, & Air Conditioning” by Dramarama, off Stuck in Wonderamaland
        “Walking in the Woods” by The Pursuit of Happiness, off Love Junk
        “Up the Beach” by Jane's Addiction, off Nothing's Shocking
        “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” by BoDeans, off Outside Looking In
        “The Woods” by The Call, off Into the Woods
        “The Last Resort” by Eagles, off Hotel California
Total:  16 tracks,  79:33

In closing, I’ll tell you two more things.  First is a bit of background on one of the bands I only briefly mentioned above.  Hearsay definitely qualifies for my definition of “very obscure band”: AllMusic’s “entry” is so impoverished that it doesn’t even have an overview (because there’s literally no info to overview), and Wikipedia has nothing.  They were in fact a small, local band from a suburb of the town I went to college in ... which is itself just a glorified suburb of Washington D.C.  I scoured the Internet for a digital copy of their magnificent album Triggerfish, but found nothing; the link above will take you to an Amazon page, but you’ll actually be buying a copy from private sellers, and paying anywhere from $15 to $60.  Not saying it’s not worth it; just opining that it’s unlikely too many of you are going to bite on that type of deal.  Perhaps one day I’ll get industrious and upload some of their music to YouTube myself.  In the meantime, you’re mostly going to have to take my word for it that they exist at all; about all I could find other than the Amazon page was an old article from the Washington Post.7  So just trust me when I tell you that lead singer Jeny Nicholson’s vocals are angelic, and Doug Kallmeyer’s bass work is phenomenal.

And, finally, we have “Velveteen” by Transvision Vamp.  Velveteen the album is the lackluster follow-up to the far superior Pop Art; it’s an inconsistent affair whose highlight is a song carried over from its much better predecessor.  “Velveteen” the song is a long, overblown bit of melodrama that drips with cheese ... but I find it irresistable, for some unfathomable reason.  If I were assigning it to a mix today, I would no doubt slot it for something a bit more operatic,8 but at this point it’s become integral to my mental model of what Wisty Mysteria actually is.  It’s not sad, per se, although there’s a sense of yearning at its core.  It’s got way too much in-your-face sexual innuendo, but that’s pretty standard for this band (which after all has “vamp” right there in the name, so you knew what you were getting into).  It can’t really decide what style it wants to be, and its sense of what seduction means is about what you’d expect from a Twilight novel.  And yet ... and yet there’s something about it which captures my imagination, in between the cheesy lyrics and the bombastic strings, something perhaps in the interplay of Wendy James sultry bark and what I assume is Nick Sayer’s throaty whisper.  Let’s call it a guilty pleasure and leave it at that.

Next time, we’ll head out on a world tour.


1 For the second time.  I had a weird college career where I attended for 2 years, dropped out for 3, then went back for 3 and finished up.

2 And, yes, I realize I’m being very generous in calling it a “convention.”

3 Again, count on future volume expanding on that.

4 All the original pre-modern mixes were on 90-minute cassettes, so modern mix volumes are generally about 10 minutes shorter.

5 In fact, this is probably the most country-ish song the BoDeans have ever done that I can still stand to listen to.  And yet, despite that, I’ve always really liked this particular track.

6 That would be after his Clan of Xymox phase, but just before his Clan of Xymox phase.

7 Fun fact: see how the final paragraph of that article says: “if you miss them at the Bayou, they’ll be at Fat Tuesday’s in Fairfax Thursday”?  I was actually at that show.

8 A mix which we shall come to in, as always, in the fullness of time.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Perl blog post #56

This week I decided to pop over to my Other Blog to write about some interesting code I ran across at $work the other day.  It’s been a while and I didn’t want my Perl homies to feel neglected.  This one’s pretty code-heavy, so, if you’re not a fellow Perl geek, you’d probably want to give it a pass.  But, hey: there’s always next week.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Multiclassing, Part 2: History of the Multiclasses (3rd edition)

Last time, I diverged briefly from my discussion of D&D multiclassing through the editions to mention that my group and I gave up on D&D for a while in between the Player’s Option series (which some called 2.5e) and 3e.  To be honest, I completely undersold that.  We had whole-heartedly abandoned D&D.  It was a moribund system, weighed down by the accumulation of mismatched, overly complex subsystems over the course of 20 years.  There was no consistency anywhere: sometimes you wanted to roll high, sometimes you wanted to roll low; sometimes a higher score on your sheet was good, sometimes it was bad; thief skills and non-weapon proficiencies did pretty much the same thing but had no relation to each other whatsoever; one ability score was clearly better than all the others (Strength) and one was clearly worse (Charisma); you were never sure which dice to use for weapons; and, if you were able to figure out whether anyone was surprised when your party, which contained both a ranger and an elf, met a drow, an elven cat, and a giant eagle, at night, then you were a certifiable genius.

So we tossed out all our old books (figuratively, of course) and brushed off our hands and said “well, that’s that!” and assumed we would never play “real” D&D again.  And then ... third edition.

D&D 3e fixed a lot of problems: it positively dripped consistency, and all the abilities were useful again, and you always wanted to roll high.  But, honestly, for me, what truly drew me back into the fold, what definitively made me put on my best Pacino and proclaim that just when I thought I was out, they had pulled me back in, was the multiclassing.  It was a thing of beauty.  It was simple to understand, simple to do, you didn’t have to plan out your entire adventuring career before you ever threw the first die and you never locked yourself into dead-end paths, and you could combine almost anything with almost anything else, in a great profusion of choices.1  Not only could I be a figher-wizard if I wanted to, I could be a fighter with just a little touch of wizard (or sorcerer, perhaps), or a wizard with just a little touch of fighter, or a mostly-wizard-rogue with 2 levels of ranger, because I was an outdoorsy sneaky magic-slinger.  That “nightblade” character my fevered imagination had been trying to put together for so long was now not only possible, it was trivial.

To be clear, we’re talking about multiclassing with base classes here, not prestige classes, which are entirely different and shouldn’t be considered at all in discussions of multiclassing, in my opinion.  Prestige classes used the multiclassing rules, but discussions of whether multiclassing worked in 3e or not that focus on the eventual mess that prestige classes led to are completely missing the point.  Take prestige classes out of it entirely: saying multiclassing in 3e didn’t work because prestige classes didn’t work—whether you agree with that statement or not—is pretty much the equivalent of saying that classes in D&D don’t work because the ranger is a hot mess.2  As a simple example, prestige classes have many of the problems that multiclassing in general doesn’t: you do have to plan out your entire career, and build traps and dead ends are common.  So let’s ignore prestige classes for purposes of this discussion.

The amazing thing about 3e multiclassing—and we may as well throw in 3.5e for that matter, because the multiclassing rules were just about the only thing that didn’t change from 3.0 to 3.5—was its flexibility.  You certainly could plan out your entire 20-level career if you wanted to (such templates are usually called “builds”), but you could also just keep taking fighter levels until you got bored and then take a random level of whatever.  You could take two classes, or three, or fifteen (if your GM allowed enough splat books), and you could take them in whatever proportions you liked.  If you wanted to be half cleric and half barbarian, you could take 10 levels of one and then 10 levels of the other, or you could alternate back and forth for your entire career, or you could take 3 levels of barbarian and then 8 levels of cleric and then 4 more levels of barbarian and then two more levels of cleric and so on.  For nearly every combination of classes you can imagine, a quick Internet search will almost always get you people railing about it being completely overpowered, and also people sneering about how useless it is.  The truth is, flexibility breeds complexity, and complexity can be a good thing ... for instance, complexity is what makes it not always clear whether a certain choice is good or bad.  And that makes it an interesting choice.  Because a choice where the answer is crystal clear—where it’s always A, or always B—is a boring choice.  In many ways, it’s a non-choice.  The only reason for picking the suboptimal choice is to be different, and being different only for the sake of being different is not the best strategy.3  So, in this way, the complexity is a positive.

But complexity has a negative side, of course.  Complexity often confuses people, and leads them to making poor choices.  Let me be clear that I consider this different from being a “trap,” as that term is often used when talking about character building.  To me, a trap is a feature that seems good on paper but in practice turns out deliver way less than advertised.  That’s different—subtly different, perhaps, but distinctly different—from a case where the user has so many options that they just can’t process them all, and end up picking the wrong one, or overlooking the right one.  If it’s obvious from reading the feature that it was the right choice (or the wrong one), that’s not a trap.  It’s just that there’s so much to read that it’s easy to skim over something and not pay close enough attention to realize you’re heading down the wrong path.  Multiclassing in 3e was certainly guilty of that.  There were 11 classes in the PHB, and Wikipedia lists 42 others across 14 other books, not even counting NPC classes, core class variants, or setting-specific classes.  That’s a metric shit-ton of material, and if you were really faced with choosing one class among 50+ every level for 20 levels, that’s over 9½ million billion billion billion different possible character builds.4  Most of them are silly, sure, but the point is that it’s easy to miss things amongst that much material.

But really complexity wasn’t the problem, in the end.  Flexibility leads to complexity, sure, but the thornier issue is that flexibility leads to abuse.  I’m not going to get too deep into the actual issue of using multiclassing for powergaming—that’s a broader topic that deserves its own post (which it will get, later in the series)—but, regardless of the reality, the perception that multiclassing acquired at this stage of its history has dogged it forevermore.  The practice known as “single-dipping” (or, more rarely, “double-dipping”), which is taking one (or two) levels of a class just to get its early features, explicitly began after the release of 3.0.  It forced class designers to change the way they laid out their class features—if you put too many interesting or desireable features at low levels, people would “dip” your class, but nobody would play it straight up.  This came to be known as a “front-loaded” class, and please be sure to curl your lip in your best Billy Idol imitation when you say that, because it’s meant as a terrible insult.  3.5e fixed a lot of the worst examples of this, and Pathfinder fixed even more, but it continues to be a concern for class designers everywhere.  Now, overall I think this is a positive thing—forcing designers to spread out class features has lots of other benefits as well, such as keeping high-level play interesting—but there’s no denying that practices such as dipping gave multiclassing a bad name that it’s still trying to shake to this day.

Moving from the big picture to the smaller one, 3e multiclassing did have a number of minor problem.  Happily, Pathfinder fixed nearly all of them.  The biggest minor problem with 3e/3.5e multiclassing, in my opinion, was the XP penalty.  This was a little nose-tweak to discourage everyone from multiclassing all the time, and it could be offset somewhat via a race’s favored class, which restored a tiny bit of 2e’s racial multiclassing preferences by making an elven fighter mage progress normally, while a human one lagged behind (but only by a little).  The problem with this was that it didn’t really work.  XP penalties are always a giant pain in the ass to keep track of, so the vast majority of gaming groups just threw them out, and it was a multiclasing free-for-all.  Pathfinder wisely determined that this problem required a carrot, not a stick: in other words, don’t discourage multiclassing, but rather favor single-classing.  To that end, they added “capstones,” which are extremely cool features5 that you can only get by sticking with one class all the way to 20th level.  Of course, that only works if you actually play to 20th level, which no one ever does.  But Pathfinder foresaw that niggling problem as well, and retooled “favored classes” to be decoupled from races and just reward all characters for taking levels in their original class.

Pathfinder also removed the last few class-combination restrictions.  And the last thing they “fixed” was to make a lot more things depend on your class level as opposed to your character level.  I put “fixed” in quotes there, though, because while that curbs a lot of abuse, it also severely nerfs multiclassed characters in some situations.  The big thing that Patfhinder didn’t fix was the saving throw problem.  If you took 3 different classes that all had the same “good” save, you suddenly had a +6 at level 3, which was insane.  Contrariwise, if they all had the same “bad” save, you were stuck at +0 at 3rd level, which was just as silly, except in the other direction.  There were various schemes for fixing this,6 but really we just had to wait for 5e for it to be fixed properly.

Overall, the 3e rules for multiclassing, especially as refined by Pathfinder, continue to offer the best, most flexible roleplaying experience.  Unfortunately, “most flexible” is not always considered a compliment, and the reputation of multiclassing as “for munchkins only” is directly traceable to this version, so we can’t claim perfection.  Next time, we take a look at what went wrong in 4th edition.


1 The only classes you couldn’t combine were those with conflicting alignment restrictions, such as monk and bard, or paladin and druid.

2 And nearly always has been: note how it was annoying in 2e, broken in 3e, barely tolerable in 3.5e, weirdly off-kilter in 4e, and downright wimpy in 5e.  But I digress.

3 As opposed to being unafraid to be different for other, more valid reasons, which is often a great way to go.

4 Or about 9.5 thousand decillion, in American mathspeak.  If you happen to be British, you would say 9,500 quintilion.  I believe.

5 Theoretically.  Obviously some classes hit that target more accurately than others.

6 E.g. the “fractional saves” rule in the 3.5e version of Unearthed Arcana.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Of All My Monkey Memories ...

I don’t really have time for a full post this week, as we’re in the midst of another Virgo birthday season—my eldest is now 19, which is always a bit of a brainfuck.  Realizing you have a kid old enough to go to college when you were just in college yourself, like, yesterday, can feel surreal in a very fundamental way.  But, as Twain once said: “It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.”

But I feel like I need to leave you with something to read this week.1  So let me tell you a story, then I’ll drop you a link.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a technogeek, and you’ve probably been able to work out that I’m a bit, shall we say, older.  And while I haven’t had the most interesting technogeek career or anything, I’ve had my fair share of interesting jobs throughout the roughly three decades I’ve been at this.  And one of my favorites was working for ThnkGeek.

Now, I don’t want to get into whether ThinkGeek is still as cool these days as it used to be.2  But I don’t think there can be much argument that it was the height of cool back in the day.  And, just to be clear, I’m not trying to take any credit for that: it was already plenty cool when I got there, and that’s primarily thanks to the four founders,3 who put in the mental effort and sweat equity to make it so.  It was as a wonderful a place to work as it was a wonderful place to shop, and I loved almost all of my time there.  And, while I’m not making any claim that I made any major contributions to the great and storied history of ThinkGeek, there are a couple of things I could brag about.  You know, if I were so inclined.

You probably already know that the creature most in charge of ThinkGeek is a monkey named Timmy.  And you may know (or at least suspect) that a geek-centered company like TG gets all sorts of wacky emails from customers.  And I bet you can easily guess that wacky customer emails often get forwarded around so that all the employees can share in the wackiness.  At some point, I started “responding” to some of these emails (internally only, of course!) as Timmy.  This was strictly to entertain my fellow employees, and, at that time, there were few enough of those that I knew them all personally and knew what they would find amusing.4  After a few rounds of that, somebody came up with the bright idea to turn this into something we could put on the website.5  I always referred to it as “Ask Timmy”—still do, whenever I talk about it—but I guess it was technically called “Dear Timmy” on the site.6  It didn’t last long: I did 7 installments of the column over the course of perhaps a year.  Somebody else picked the questions, and I answered them, using the “voice” of Timmy.  Timmy was wise and knew just about everything, and he was always right, even when he was wrong.  Since it was pretty much a marketing tool, I did take a few opportunities in there to do some product placement, but mainly I was just having fun.  Let me give you a taste:

Dear Timmy,

I was watching Star Wars the other night, and began to wonder something. Stormtroopers are clones of Jango Fett. Boba Fett is also a clone of him. Given that, why is it that stormtroopers can’t manage to hit anything when they shoot, but Boba can?

Woodend, Victoria, Australia, Earth

Dear Mat,

This is simply a case of good-guy-physics vs. bad-guy-physics. Good guys always hit what they aim at, often with a minimum number of shots, and bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn (particularly if the barn contains good guys). To demonstrate the truth of this, take a look at Attack of the Clones. In this movie, the stormtroopers are good guys, and they hit large quantities of Count Dooku’s allies. Once they have been co-opted by Sidious and Vader, however, they immediately begin to suck, and by the time they get around to chasing Luke and Han down the corridors of the Deathstar, they regularly have difficulty hitting the walls.

Now, Boba Fett is a different case, which requires the application of an entirely separate branch of bad-guy-physics. This branch is roughly equivalent to fluid dynamics in that chaos theory is a factor. Bad guys who have proper names can sometimes hit what they aim at, depending on complex laws governed by butterfly wings in China, which side of a paleobotanist’s hand a drop of water will roll down, and most importantly, the desired plot outcome. Just as apparently random events can be mapped to form beautiful patterns known as fractals, the hit ratio of bad guys with proper names will, when viewed from far enough away, form a pattern (in this case, George Lucas’ scripts, which may or may not be considered a beautiful thing, depending on your age at the time Episode IV was released and how you feel about Jar Jar Binks).

As an interesting side note, the Star Wars movies demonstrate several other principles of bad-guy-physics, including the Law of Conservation of Evil (which is why one Sith Lord always has to die before you can get another one), and temporal anomalies (cf. Han Shot First).

Hope that clears it up!

    — Timmy

So, it was a lot of fun, and I probably would have kept on doing it for a while if I hadn’t left the company.  Of all the geeky things I’ve done, this may be the one I’m proudest of.

The column archive is no longer on the ThinkGeek site, but, since the Internet is forever, you can find all the old Ask Timmy installments on the Wayback Machine.  So hop on over and read the rest of the columns ... hopefully you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I did writing them.


1 Honestly, I’m not sure why.  Normally I don’t care that much.  But I’m feeling generous today.  Or something.

2 Although I have a definite opinion about that.

3 That would be Willie, Jen, Scott, and Jon.

4 Which I suppose is my way of saying, don’t try this at home kids, especially if your company has more than a couple dozen employees.  Nobody likes that guy who hits reply-all on the company emails and spams a few hundred people, no matter how funny they think they are.

5 Probably Willie.  He was TG’s primary idea machine at the time.

6 Again, I blame Willie.  But then again I blame Willie like Matt Stone and Trey Parker blame Canada.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Salsatic Vibrato VI

"Dinner at Seven, Martinis at Five"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

When I wrote about Salsatic Vibrato I, I wrote that it was my number two mix in terms of number of tracks, although it was only 4 songs shy of the leader (Smokelit Flashback).  Since that time, the two mixes have been neck-and-neck, one pulling slightly ahead for a while, only to fall slightly behind for a while after that.  But lately Salsatic Vibrato has surged into the lead, beating the original by 50-some-odd tracks, with 6 volumes more or less completed and a 7th perhaps 75% done, while Somkelit Flashback’s 6th is only around half done, and its “7th” is just a disconnected collection of randomly jumbled songs.  And so it is that Salsatic Vibrato is the first of my mixes to achieve a 6th blog post.  And here you are to read it.

This outing is a pretty solid offering, if I do say so myself, with no repeated artists at all,1 and, among the 22 tracks, 5 are from from old standards, 10 are returning artists that are slighly less heard-from, and 7 are brand new.  That’s a decent ratio for a volume VI.

Only one band has appeared on every preceding volume: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and of course they’re back now.  “I Like It” is a happy little tune, typical of BBVD.  There are also 3 bands who have shown up on 4 of the 5 previous volumes, and 2 of them are back after being missing in action last volume.  Squirrel Nut Zippers tell us that what was “Good Enough for Granddad” is good enough for us, and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies tell us about their “Uncle Ray,” a song with a honky-tonk vibe which skirts dangerously to country, but never quite crosses the line.2

The third artist to solidify a 5-out-of-6 score is our old friend Lou Bega.  Now, Bega is often accused of having all his songs sound alike, and I will freely admit that the selection here is awfully similar to his mega-hit “Mambo No. 5.”3  But there are a few things worth noting here.  Firstly, the man is a self-styled mambo king, and there’s only so much variation you can achieve and still be singing mambo.  Secondly, even given all that, the album does have more diversity than Bega is generally given credit for: sure, several of the songs sound alike, but many of them show a lot more variety (as previous volumes have shown, I think).  Thirdly, I find it odd to accuse a man of too much sameness when he’s one of the two artists I think of as a one-person diversity committee:4 he’s a half-Italian, half-Ugandan performer of Latin music who first achieved fame in Germany singing in English.  But, finally, the most important point of all is that, if your one song is as good as Lou Bega’s is, you can sing it as many different ways as you damned well please.  And, in the end, “1+1=2” is just as awesome as “Mambo No. 5” regardless of how similar they sound.

Our final track from an artist who’s been with us from the beginning is from the Brian Setzer Orchestra, who did miss two of the previous volumes,5 but they still should be considered standards here.  “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy” is from the BSO’s 8th studio album, which is the first not to include any covers at all.  I wish I could say that was a good thing, but I’m not sure it is ... “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy” is probably the least silly song on the album, and even it has a few cringe-worthy moments.  But it’s a lovely, upbeat duet between Setzer and his wife, Julie Reiten, so I forgive it its trespasses.

The Atomic Fireballs have only been on 2 previous volumes, starting with volume III, and providing two songs for volume IV, including the closer.  They’re doing that for us again, with lead singer John Bunkley advising that we wash our “Caviar & Chitlins” down with scotch in his appropriately whiskey-soaked voice, which seems like good advice, if one were so inclined to mix the two.6  Likewise our old pals Reel Big Fish were only on two earlier volumes, but they haven’t been seen since volume II.  They return here with “Beer,” which is about as downbeat as RBF ever get (which is to say: not very).  Although the lyrics are a bit moreso than the music, but still it’s a workable tune for this mix.

Making their third appearances are Royal Crown Revue—still not my favorite, but “Beware” is a pretty snappy tune—and Lisa Stansfield, once again off the Swing soundtrack.  This one—“Watch the Birdie”—is another cover,7 the original being sung by Martha Raye for the film version of Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, but probably more famously covered by Gene Krupa that same year.  Still a fairly obscure track, but Stansfield does it very well, giving it a sultriness that none of the earlier versions had.8  It sets the tone admirably as our volume opener.

In the “where have those guys been?” category, we get the long-awaited return of Seatbelts from volume I, with another instrumental off the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack; whereas in the “didn’t we just meet them?” category, both Brass Action and Mocean Worker are back from their debuts last volume.  The too-little-known ska greats from Vancouver give us “The Handyman,” who can fix anything, and the DJ-and-remixer spins us another instrumental track that tells us to “Do Like Ya Like.”  And, filling out the “hey, I remember those guys!” category, Caro Emerald and Kid Creole and the Coconuts are back from their single appearances on volume III.  The latter give us our primary jolt of salsa-inflected pop9 with a song that’s not quite as good as “The Lifeboat Party,” but is a fun little ride nonetheless.  (For instance, it surely must be the only song to feature “onomatopoeia” as a musical refrain.10)  Likewise, it’s tough to beat Emerald’s “That Man,” but “Riviera Life” gives it a damn good run for its money.  Seriously: if this track doesn’t have you bobbing your head and snapping your fingers along with it by the end of your second listen-through at the latest, then I would go get your joy-meter checked, because it’s probably malfunctioning.

Our centerpiece this time out is an electro-swing combo of returning artist Caravan Palace and fresh face F.M. Einheit, who give us the deliciously sublime “Princess Crocodile.”  Utilizing Danish vocalist (singing in English) Gry Bagøien, this former member of proto-industrial greats Einstürzende Neubauten has moved into various forms of electronica, including, apparently, electro-swing, where he’s doing quite well, at least judging from this track.  That segues neatly into the decidedly not-electro low baritone of Leon Redbone, which I remember fondly from my misspent youth watching Saturday Night Live.  Most of Redbone’s œuvre is too old-fashioned for my tastes, but I’ve always had a soft spot for “Te Na Na,” so I dug it out and threw it in here.  For some reason it seems to flow beautifully off of Einheit, although they couldn’t be more different musically speaking.

After Redbone we hit a couple of the more obscure retro-swing bands: the Mighty Blue Kings,11 and Indigo Swing.12  Neither are anything to write home about in my opinion, but nearly every band is going to have one or two great songs, and these two are no exception.  “In the Night” is a slinky tune that celebrates night life in a way that I particularly appreciate, and “Drinkin’ It Up” is a smooth glass of something shaken, not stirred, and it also provides our volume title this time around.

Salsatic Vibrato VI
    [Dinner at Seven, Martinis at Five]

        “Watch the Birdie” by Lisa Stansfield, off Swing [Soundtrack]
        “Too Good Too Bad” by The Seatbelts, off Cowboy Bebop [Soundtrack]
        “I Like It” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Save My Soul
        “Good Enough for Granddad” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off The Inevitable
        “1+1=2” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy” by Kid Creole and the Coconuts [Single]
        “Riviera Life” by Caro Emerald, off Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor
        “The Handyman” by The Brass Action, off Making Waves
        “Dramophone” by Caravan Palace, off Panic
        “Princess Crocodile” by F.M. Einheit [Single]
        “(Mama's Got a Baby Named) Te Na Na” by Leon Redbone [Single]
        “In the Night” by Mighty Blue Kings, off Meet Me in Uptown
        “Drinkin' It Up” by Indigo Swing, off All Aboard!
        “Beware” by Royal Crown Revue, off Walk on Fire
        “Subway Hustler” by Smokey Bandits, off Debut
        “Eat You” by Caravan of Thieves, off The Funhouse
        “Beer” by Reel Big Fish, off Turn the Radio Off
        “Everything Went Numb” by Streetlight Manifesto, off Everything Goes Numb
        “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, off Songs from Lonely Avenue
        “Uncle Ray” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Soul Caddy
        “Do Like Ya Like” by Mocean Worker, off Candygram for Mowo!
        “Caviar & Chitlins” by The Atomic Fireballs, off Torch This Place
Total:  22 tracks,  73:43

Making their debut here are Smokey Bandits, whom we so far have seen only on Shadowfall Equinox.13  “Subway Hustler” showcases their more upbeat side: this instrumental starts out slow, but then settles into a groove with a complex drum rhythm underlying an interesting point-counterpoint between xylophone and trumpet.

And, finally, in the category of never-before-seen-here-or-anywhere-else (at least as far as my mixes go), we have two new bands.  The first is Streetlight Manifesto, which I discovered when I went looking to see if there were any really good ska bands that I’d missed.  I do this sometimes with various subgenres;14 it is in fact how I discovered the Might Blue Kings and Indigo Swing up above.  Like those bands for retro-swing, Streetlight Manifesto is not going to become my new favorite ska band or anything, but they’re quite well respected in hardcore ska circles, and they do have an occasional gem, such as “Everything Went Numb,” the almost-title-track off of their first album Everything Goes Numb.  The more interesting find, though, is Caravan of Thieves, the core of which is the husband-and-wife duo of Fuzz and Carrie Sangiovanni.  They describe their style as “gypsy-swing,” which, if it’s supposed to mean gypsy-jazz punched up with the slightly higher energy of swing, is a pretty apropos description.  I think this may well be the first song allowed on this mix without trumpet, saxopohne, trombone or clarinet (unless Caravan Palace snuck something in on me when I wasn’t looking), but listen to it and I think you’ll agree it fits right in here.

Next time around, it’s finally time to take a look at the first ever pre-modern mix.

Salsatic Vibrato VII


1 Only the second time I’ve managed that for this mix—the last time was Salsatic Vibrato III.

2 At least for me.  Your mileage may vary, of course.

3 A co-worker remarked on hearing this track that he supposed it wasn’t really ripping it off if you were only copying yourself.

4 The other is Azam Ali, who we shall meet properly in the fullness of time.

5 Specifically, volumes II and V.

6 I think what I love most about this song is Bunkley’s absolute commitment to the scotch.  He first rhymes it with lunch, which is a bit of a stretch, but then even when he needs a rhyme for things that sound absolutely nothing like “scotch”—like, “all day”—he’s still washing it down with scotch.  That’s dedication for you.

7 Although we’ve seen a Stansfield original off that soundtrack as well, over on Slithy Toves.

8 Raye’s original was solidly comedic, and Anita O’Day, singing with Krupa, didn’t stray far from that template (likely because Raye was admittedly her primary vocal influence, at last according to Wikipedia).

9 See, I told you we’d bring that back.

10 Note that the “misheard lyrics” site swears this line is actually “I don’t want to be your.”  I’m afraid I must call shenanigans on that.

11 Whom I’m pretty sure I discovered via the same retro-swing fan whose page introduced me to Swingerhead, as discussed back on volume II.

12 Whom I have no clue whatsoever how I discovered.

13 Specifically, on volumes II and IV.

14 As we’ll see in our next installment with electro-swing.