Sunday, April 16, 2017

Heart Too Full

We’re just 11 days shy of being 3 years on from the last time I wrote about my middle child’s heart condition.  Today I’m revisiting the topic because we just got some news from his doctor.  In that last post, I wrote:

The doctors estimated that my son’s heart wouldn’t last much more than a week with the stenosis.  With the regurgitation, it could last years, perhaps even decades.

It could last that long ... but perhaps it won’t.  ... your stress level goes through six-month cycles of peaking to insane levels because you dread that this time is the time when they’ll finally tell you he needs the surgery.

Well, it seems that time is drawing nearer.

That previous post was spurred by the occasion of the Smaller Animal’s first treadmill test.  This week he had his third or fourth (I’m starting to lose track, honestly).  Then he was 8; now he’s 11.  On the plus side, he finally got up to 4.2mph at a 16% grade, for the first time ever, and he still did not have trouble breathing.  When the nurse asked him why he stopped, he said his legs just got tired, which of course happens to everyone.  However, his blood pressure reading were a bit scary.  Prior to the test, he clocked in at 120 over 60, which is perfectly normal ... for a 30-year-old man.  For someone his age, it’s a bit high, although I didn’t really register that until the doctor mentioned it the following day.  But I couldn’t miss the fact that, just after the test, he was reading 112 over 38.  Now, let me stress that I’ve seen a lot of blood pressure readings in my life—not as many as someone in the actual medical profession, of course, but many more than the average, non-medical person.  I did time in the ER as part of my EMT training when I was (much) younger, and, when you’re the low man on the totem pole in the ER, taking people’s blood pressures is about all they let you do.  So I took a lot of blood pressures then, and I’ve observed a lot (in my family, I’m generally the person forced to go along because my mother taught me to speak medicalese).1  And, in all those blood pressures, I never saw a diastolic reading2 that low.  Hell, I wasn’t even really aware it ever went that low.  After resting on the table while they did the ECG,3 he registered 102 over 50, which was an improvement, but still I was mildly troubled about that 38.

As it turns out, his doctors were too.  The following day, his pediatric cardiologist called us and let us know that it was time for us to start talking to cardiac surgeons.  Just talking, mind you: it’s still possible they might say that, at his age, they’d prefer to wait before scheduling the surgery.  But it’s also possible that they might say that the risk of waiting outweighs the risk of doing the surgery sooner.  And I could go on and talk more about the advances in cardiac catheterization,4 or the details of the Ross procedure, but you’ll just have to go back and review that last post, if you haven’t already.  Right now I’m having difficulty focussing on the technical issues, even though that’s what I generally prefer to do.  The technical issues of medicine are something I can get my brain around.  My mother always wanted me to be a doctor—even though that’s primarily because her father wanted to have a boy who grew up to be a doctor and I just inherited the vicarious lifeplans—and I seriously considered it for a good deal of my early adult life.  But though I found it interesting, I didn’t have the passion for it that I would need to push me through medical school, and residency, and that whole grueling process.  But I understood the basics of it just fine, and I never minded the blood or other bodily fluids, and I always thought the idea of cutting people open and rooting around inside them was not at all gross but utterly fascinating, so the mechanics of medicine is something I understand and am comfortable with and usually try to focus on.  But sometimes it’s difficult.

When our middle child was born, we had about 48 hours to just relax and be happy with him, until the whole heart issue blew up, metaphorically speaking, and took over our lives for the next several weeks.  And then it was okay again—well, as okay as it can be, with something like that hanging over your head, but surprisingly you really can put it out of your mind and get on with life.  Which we did, for the next neary eleven years, until this week.  Now it’s very difficult not to fall back into that time of feeling like you don’t know what will happen, and you don’t know what’s going on, and you don’t know how life will keep going, and you’re just afraid.

I suppose it’s possible to look at it like it’s crueler this way: if anything happens to him during the surgery, we will all be much more devastated than we would have been if we’d lost him early, as devastating as that would have been.  But back then he was mostly potential: there is a very visceral connection that you feel to your child which forms as you watch them being born, and you know instantly that you would die for them even though they’re just this sort of messy, uncoordinated, chubby, crying blob of trouble and poop and lost sleep at this point.  But you sense the potential nonetheless ... you know that, one day, this will be a fully-formed human being with their own opinions and distastes and joys, and they will look up at you, and they will resent you sometimes, and they will be embarrassed by you sometimes, and they will be royally pissed at you sometimes, but in many ways—the most important ways—you will be their everything, and they will be yours.  You sense that ... but it’s just a feeling.  By the time you’ve had them hanging around for 11 years, the potential is realized.  There’s no more wondering who they’ll turn out to be: by now, you have a really good idea.  You know their faults, and their weaknesses, and their stubborn streaks.  And you know their power, and their strength, and their love.  This child, I’ve played Rescue Heroes and Imaginext with, and LittleBigPlanet, and The Legend of Zelda, and Heroscape, and D&D.  I’ve watched him put together complex creations out of Legos, and Magna-Tiles, and blocks in Minecraft, and those electronic projects where you snap components on the board and make the fan turn on, or the speaker buzz, or the light bulb light up.  I’ve seen him off to summer camp,5 off to work with horses, off to ride roller coasters, off to swim in the ocean and countless pools.  I’ve slept with him snuggled up under me, and I’ve groaned as he continued to climb up into my lap long after he was way too big for that.  I’ve introduced him to Red Dwarf and Dinosaurs and Mystery Science Theater 3000 and even The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.  Today I hid 12 eggs for him that he had a hell of a time finding and then I hugged him and didn’t have to bend down at all, because in another year or so he’ll be just as tall as I am.

So while one might argue that it’s crueler this way, I instead choose to look at it differently: I’m lucky to have had what I’ve gotten so far.  If the universe or whatever higher power runs it continues to bless me, I’ll continue to be lucky and I’ll have even more experiences that I will treasure.  But, no matter what happens, I’ve had 11 years of amazing interaction with an amazing kid who has enriched my life, and the lives of all of us here in this family, and I couldn’t imagine having missed out on that.

The next few weeks and months may end up being a scary time for us.  I can’t say for sure how everyone will get through it.  However, I’m personally going to trydifficult as it may be, I’m going to try very hard—to concentrate on all the ways that my life is better because of my son, and how lucky I’ve been to know him.  That will be my focus, if I can manage it.  And there’s a lot of it to contemplate.


1 Not The Mother, that is, but my own mother, who was a nurse (and CPR instructor) for most of her adult life.

2 The diastolic is the second number.  The first number is the systolic.

3 That’s the echocardiogram, which you may recall from last post.

4 We will also be talking with a specialist in that along with the surgeons.

5 We are lucky enough to live in the area served by Camp del Corazon, a summer camp specifically for kids with heart conditions that is staffed in part by pediatric cardiologists.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Saladosity, Part 8: Some Condiments, You Just Want to Buy

[This is the eighth post in a long series.  You may wish to start at the beginning.  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.]

In our quest to make the perfect salads, there’s still more shopping to do.  When it comes to condiments, we’re going to make a lot of them ourselves: mayonnaise, pickle relish, and most of the actual salad dressings.  But that doesn’t mean we’re going to make everything from scratch.  Remember: our #1 goal is to make making salads easy.  So if I tell you that you have to start growing your own mustard seed or whatever, that’s not easy.  So we’re going to make things ourselves where it’s simple to do so, and/or where it’s easier than trying to find quality condiments in your local store.  Where that’s not feasible, though, we will not hesitate one whit to just buy the stuff.  We’re eating good, and we’re eating simple.  Buying a few premade items is not going to endanger that.

Salad Dressings

Yes, there are actually a (very) few salad dressings that I like to buy intead of make.  Specifically, two: a feta cheese dressing, and a Tuscan dressing.

Now, both of these come from my local Trader Joe’s,* and they are (not at all coincidentally) the only two dressings that I’ve found there that have neither 1) soybean oil, nor 2) any added sweeteners.  If you’re avoiding dairy due to strict paleo/Whole30-ness, then the feta cheese dressing is out.  The Tuscan, however, should be good for all the nutritional tribes.

Now, remember I said  last time that, if you buy bleu cheese crumbles, you don’t actually need bleu cheese dressing?  This was a little bit of a white lie: you don’t need a dressing which is bleu cheese specifically, but what you do still need is a dressing which is creamy, and not strongly flavored so it won’t compete with the natural piquancy of the bleu cheese.  TJ’s feta dressing is exactly that.  You could try other varieties—I think a ranch would be too much, plus you’re never going to find ranch dressing without added sugars, but there could well be other options at your disposal.  Mainly you just want no crappy soybean oil, and hopefully no sugar (in any of its myriad forms).  TJ’s feta dressing has olive oil and canola oil (not the best, but better than soybean, corn, or peanut), and no sweeteners at all.  It doesn’t taste strongly of feta either, despite the name, and it’s a perfect complement for a bleu cheese salad.

Tuscan dressing, on the other hand, is just a slight step up from Italian (meaning it’s not much more than oil and vinegar).  The oil in this case is sunflower (good) “and/or” canola (less good, but still not awful).  The vinegar is balsamic.  And the “step up” is tomatoes and “spices” that edge it more towards tasting a bit like Worcestershire sauce, or maybe steak sauce without the sweetness.  It’s very tart, in fact, so I advise you use it in small quantities, which means it has a built-in mechanism to keep you from overindulging.  And, if you’re in the calorie-counter tribe, it’s only 50 calories per tablespoon, so that works out well all ‘round.  When we make our Tuscan salad, I’ll show you how to balance out that tartness in a very pleasant way.


You know, mustard is some kind of friggin’ miracle food.  It contains no sugar, no carbs, and no fat; brown mustard has 5 calories per teaspoon and yellow mustard has zero.  At least that what my mustard bottles tell me—and guess where I bought ’em?—and, if yours are telling you a different story, toss ’em out and go shoppping for better options.  On top of all that, it’s seriously yummy, and it helps things emulsify (crucial when we get around to making our own mayonnaise).  About the only thing even remotely objectionable is that some forms of brown mustard (dijon, poupon, etc) may contain white wine, which some nutritional tribes (e.g. Whole30) may prohibit.  But that’s easy enough to work around.

You will need yellow mustard for sure, and brown mustard probably.  My particular yellow mustard happens to be organic, but I’m not sure I can taste the difference there, honestly.  But I don’t think there even is a non-organic version, and it’s still cheap enough, so why not?  My choice of brown mustard happens not to have any wine, but honestly I wouldn’t care if it did—that’s one of the Whole30 precepts that I tossed out the window a long time ago.


Now, the first thing I learned about ketchup when I started this whole journey was that it’s impossible to make ketchup without adding something to sweeten it.  If you don’t add some form of sugar, you just end up with thinned out tomato sauce, which is definitively not ketchup.  If you happen to be really seriously into Whole30, you’re probably already aware that there’s a company out there that makes ketchup using dates, which, being fruit and technically not an added “sweetener,” makes it Whole30-safe.  I’ve never tried it, but then I’m not that seriously into Whole30, so your mileage may vary.  You can also try making your own ketchup, but trust me when I tell you that it is a) a huge pain in the ass, and b) never ends up tasting particularly like ketchup.  As far as I’m concerned, ketchup springs into existence at some magical spring, probably underneath Teresa Heinz Kerry’s house.  Just buy the stuff.  Buy only the stuff that’s made with “organic cold-pressed raw cane juice” or whatever if you must, but honestly: it won’t make that much difference.

We’re going to use ketchup to make a version of a Thousand Islands dressing, and that is literally it.  Other than that, I never touch the stuff.  But Thousand Islands is pretty crucial for many things, particularly chef’s salad.


Now, many people absolutely adore vinegar.  I am not one of them.  For many years, I was convinced that I hated all vinegar.  Red wine vinegar I really don’t like, and apple cider vinegar I detest.  Balsamic vinegar I tolerate, but I’m not a huge fan.  However, I recognize that some recipes really need vinegar, both for its acidic qualities and its sour tang.  And I eventually discovered that white wine vinegar is pretty decent ... I’m not about to start drinking it straight or anything, but it’ll be a crucial component for at least one of our dressings.

The white wine vinegar I buy is called “white balsamic,” which I find oxymoronic.  Also its cheap price leads me to distrust the “balsamic” part, which I believe got thrown in there just to make it sound fancy.  The ingredient list is nice and short, but it’s not organic.  Still very good though.


When it comes to honey, what you really should be doing is buying local.  Find a farm or something like that nearby that sells honey made by local bees from local flowers.  Many people believe that eating local honey helps boost your immune system, but, even if you don’t buy that, it’s still a valid point that you should be helping to keep your local apiaries solvent, who in turn keep colonies of bees thriving, and I don’t think there’s very many people who actually think the recent decreases in bee populations are a good thing.

We have a local place that both bottles their own honey and also gets some varities imported, so they have a great selection.  You can even go there and do a honey-tasting.  Different kinds of honey absolutely taste different, so experiment to find out what works for you.

For our purposes, we’re going to use it to make our own honey mustard dressing.  For the most part, the crap that you have been buying—probably to give to your kids for their chicken nuggets—is not very good.  If you’ve found anything that tastes good (like, say, Ken’s), then it’s full of crap (like, say, soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, which are the first two ingredients on that delicious bottle of Ken’s).  Contrariwise, if you found anything whose ingredient list delighted you, you almost certainly were insanely disappointed by the underwhelming taste (like, say, the Sprouts store brand).  Well, as it turns out, making your own honey mustard is not so hard, plus you get to tweak it: perhaps you like yours sweeter, or tangier, or creamier, or whatever.

So start by buying yourself some nice honey.  I prefer a sweeter variety for this purpose: perhaps an orange blossom, or a nice clover.  But get whatever you personally like.

Next time, we’ll finish  up the refrigerated portion of our shopping.


* You may recall that I’m pretty much a walking TJ’s commercial.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Birthday movie reviews

It’s the second (and final, obvioiusly) installment of our March birthday season, so you won’t get a proper post from me.  But I thought I would treat you to a few brief reviews of my cinematic adventures for the weekend.  Without further ado, here’s my

Reviews of Movies for 5-Year-Olds

The Secret Life of Pets  We saw this back when it first became available to rent from Amazon, and both my then-4-year-old and my then 10-year-old watched it nearly continuously until our 48-hour rental was up.  So naturally we had to buy it for the little one for her birthday.  So naturally we had to watch it again.

I have to say it held up pretty well on second viewing: a lot of these sorts of movies don’t.  But I still laughed in several spots, even though I knew what was coming.  Good voice talents, good animation, interesting storyline.  I object to a bit of species-ism—you know exactly which breed of dog every canine is, but all the lizards are some weird amalgam of whatever saurian traits the animators felt like that day—but that’s a minor nitpick.  There’s really only one musical break, and it’s so highly amusing that I let it slide.  Gidget (voiced by the ever-funny Jenny Slate) is my girl’s new hero, and she not only got the DVD but also a physical manifestation of the sassy buttkicker.

Birthday girl’s review: I liked it.

Sing  So let me stress right up front that I despise musicals.  The vast majority of even the best Disney movies are just very short stories with lots of extended bathroom breaks.  So I was a little leery of this one.  However, interestingly enough, Sing is not really a musical.  A musical is a movie where people randomly break into song for no discernable reason.  However, Sing is about a singing contest, so every single time someone broke into song in it, there was a perfectly logical reason for it.  That said, it is true that not all the music was interesting to me—I don’t particularly care for Katy Perry, or Lady Gaga, or Taylor Swift—but there was enough to keep my mildly entertained: Frank Sinatra is tolerable, and I don’t hate Elton John.  And the punky stuff sung by Scarlett Johansson’s porcupine was pretty decent.  I found it weird that, of the five main singing animals in the film, four were voiced by actors, not singers (and the fifth was a singer that I personally had never heard of), and a bit disappointing that all of them were very extremely white.  But the story was engaging, the emotional notes were fairly restrained, and the acting was good, even Matthew McConaughey.  I felt some of the comedy was a bit over-the-top, but it was passable.

Birthday girl’s review: I liked it also.

The Boss Baby  Finally, the one movie we actually trekked out to the theater to see: Boss Baby was easily the best of the bunch.  Perhaps it was just that I wasn’t particuarly expecting much, but I really enjoyed it.  The commercials make it appear to be pretty much a one-joke movie, but it really wove a lot of different elements together and presented a story that was funny, fantastical, a bit of a caper story, and surprisingly touching at the end.  Also, no musical breaks, which is always a plus.  The voice acting was also the best of the three.  Alec Baldwin has this reputation for being a giant pain in the ass to work with, but I always find his comedy roles to be so good ... I mean, how much of a douchebag can he be and still be that funny?  Okay, sure: most of his funniness comes from overplaying douchebag characters, but, even if he’s only playing himself over and over again, at least he can laugh at himself, right?  Also, the unheard-of voice actor doing that Ian McKellan impression was spot on.  I really enjoyed that alarm clock.

Birthday girl’s review: I also liked it.  I liked everything that we watched!

Bonus review  The birthday girl also specifically wanted me to mention “the demons.”  This weekend she embarked on a rewatch of Crazyhead.  Which I definitely do not recommend you let your 5-year-old watch, just on general principle, but perhaps yours is as precocious and atypical as mine.  My little girl particularly digs kickass women taking down monsters with equal parts funny and creepy, such as the new version of Ghostbusters (which is another thing she watches over and over again), and Crazyhead certainly hits that note.  I can hardly wait to introdue her to Buffy.  So, while you might not want to let your kids watch it, you might find it pretty enjoyable for your own viewing.  And she specifically asked me to mention it, so now I have.

Next week, back to our regularly scheduled blogcast.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Numeric Driftwood III

"Shadows Fall So Blue"

[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.]

Our third volume of music to drift off to dreamland to doesn’t stray too far from the template set in the previous two volumes ... which I think we can construe as a good thing.  Just as before, we’re hearing from Anjey Satori, Kitaro, and the Angels of Venice—who provide our opener this time around, “Awake Inside a Dream”—although only one track each this volume.  David Darling also returns from volume II, this time with the title track off his even mellower album Cello Blue.  And while our first volume had Siouxise singing the song that Kaa sings to Mowgli in Disney’s Jungle Book, this volume sees Better Midler give us a take on the song Dumbo’s mother sings to him in Dumbo.  And, in one final echo of volume II, this volume also ends with two consecutive vocal tracks: “Baby Mine” is followed by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s uncharacterically soporific “Sleep Tight.”  It’s a nice way to end: two pretty lullabies to help make sure you’re solidly somnolent.

But this volume also brings us a lot of new artists, including some of my favorite albums to drift off to.  Enigma finally makes an appearance here, with “Callas Went Away,” which is probably the most restful of the tunes off their classic debut album MCMXC a.D.  The rest of that album is good, no doubt, but it’s not as apt to actually put you to sleep as what I generally look for in this mix.  Another of my favorite albums to just chill out with is the soundtrack from Twin Peaks, by Angelo Badalamenti, with occasional vocals from Julee Cruise, such as the track I’m using here, “Into the Night.”  “Into the Night” is a curious tune, because while it’s super-mellow for 95% of its just-under-5-minutes’ running time, it does have an unexpected crescendo towards the end which might actually wake you up if you’re not expecting it.  That’s probably the reason it took so long to land on this mix, to be honest.  But, in the end, I felt that that one moment couldn’t completely negate its appropriateness here.  Besides: once you know it’s there, it rapidly loses its power to shake up your consciousness.  And, if nothing else, I put it fairly early in the tracklist so there’s a decent chance you’re not quite asleep yet.  Plus it handily provides our volume title, so it’s sort of crucial to the volume.

Another of my favorite mellow bands is the Blue Nile.  Like Enigma, most of their music is relaxing but not quite sleep-inducing, but every now and again they hit the jackpot.  While “From a Late Night Train” has a gentle, pining quality that almost qualifies it for Wisty Mysteria,1 it’s also soothing in a strange way that I can’t fully describe.  It makes a nice transition into our middle stretch, and also means that there’s four fully vocal tracks, as well as two others with a few breathy, whispered words,2 which is a new record for this mix.

There’s also more proper new age on this volume than on previous installments—perhaps even more than on any other mix volume I’ve done so far.  Besides Kitaro and Satori, who we can definitively say are new age, and Angels of Venice, who we might dabble with describing as “neoclassical” before admitting that, yeah, they’re pretty new-age-y, we also have Anugama, Torben Thøger, and Hilary Stagg, who form a 4-song block with David Darling wedged firmly in the middle.3  Anugama we’ve heard from before, on Shadowfall Equinox; he’s a German musician who spent many years in Asia absorbing meditative music.  “Shaku Sunset” is a perfect example of that influence: it has a gentle East Asian feel, and fades away into the chirping of crickets, which transitions beautifully into “Cello Blue,” which kicks off with chirping birds.  The overall effect is that of a pre-dawn morning.  Then “Cello Blue”‘s chirping birds flow into the babbling brook of “A Wonderful Place.”  Torben Thoger is a Danish composer and filmmaker; most of his work I find a little too new-age-y, but “A Wonderful Place” is really beautiful, even though at over 13 minutes, it’s the longest track on this mix (or, again, quite possibly on any of my mixes).  But I make special allowances here: this type of music is one of the few places where very long tracks can actually serve the purpose well.4  But assuming you’re still awake after nearly 13½ minutes of the calming soundtrack that accompanies the running water, that fades nicely into the sublime harp of Stagg.  Hilary Stagg was an electrician inspired to take up the harp after attending a concert by Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider, and he soon created a unique harp style that combines electrical amplification and lucid dreaming.  Again, Stagg is often way too new age for my tastes, but “Drifting Toward a Dream” is a pretty perfect example of how good he can be when he’s on.

Numeric Driftwood III
    [Shadows Fall So Blue]

        “Awake Inside a Dream” by Angels of Venice, off Awake Inside a Dream
        “The Mist” by Kitaro, off India
        “Night Surround” by Anjey Satori, off For Relaxation
        “Into the Night” by Angelo Badalamenti, off Twin Peaks [Soundtrack]
        “From a Late Night Train” by The Blue Nile, off Hats
        “Callas Went Away” by Enigma, off MCMXC a.D.
        “Shaku Sunset” by Anugama, off The Lightness of Being [Compilation]
        “Cello Blue” by David Darling, off Cello Blue
        “A Wonderful Place” by Torben Thøger, off Akasha
        “Drifting Toward a Dream” by Hilary Stagg, off Dream Spiral
        “Floating On” by Koushik, off Out My Window 5
        “Grace” by Beth Quist, off Silver
        “Baby Mine” by Bette Midler, off Beaches [Soundtrack]
        “Sleep Tight” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off This Beautiful Life
Total:  14 tracks,  76:57

Which only leaves us with two tracks.  Beth Quist we’ve seen before on other mixes,6 but this is her first appearance here.  “Grace” is a track off her first album, Silver, and exemplifies what make her great: middle-Eastern-influenced music, and her wordless vocals are just another instrument, and one with magnificent range.  This is more relaxing than most of her oeuvre, which is of course why it fits in so nicely here.

And leading into Quist is a short bridge from Indian-Canadian electronica artist Koushik.  “Floating On”7 is exactly what it says on the tin: a short, floating melody that carries us gracefully from the transcendent harp of Stagg to the otherworldly voice of Quist.

Next time, we’ll wake back up with another installment of getting down to brass tactics.

Numeric Driftwood IV


1 A mix which we shall come to in the fullness of time, of course.

2 That would be the Enigma, of course, and the Angels of Venice track, perhaps a bit surprisingly.

3 And we could probably describe Darling as new age too, if we’re being honest.

4 The other place being Shadowfall Equinox.

5 On some versions of this album, including the one I’m linking you to, “Floating On” is listed as “Flying On.”  But it’s the same song.

6 On Smokelit Flashback IV and V, as well as Sirenexiv Cola I and Paradoxically Sized World IV.

7 Or, on some versions of Out My Window, “Flying On.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

GM Philosophy: Roleplaying Is Storytelling

So having talked at some length about why I play D&D, this post may seem somewhat repetitive,1 but it really is the linchpin of my GM philosophy.  See, the whole issue stems from the fact that, while almost all games that you’ve ever played before are competitive, D&D is not.  It’s cooperative.  This leads many people to wonder: so what is the point?  Every game—even a cooperative one—must have an object or goal.  That’s what tells you what to do in order to improve your performance.  You need some sort of yardstick to measure yourself against.  If you’re not striving to outdo your fellow players, then what exactly are you striving towards?

Different people have come up with different answers to that question, and, while none of those answers are wrong, it is true that the members of any given gaming group need to aim at the same target.  That is: it’s okay for different groups to have different goals, even though they’re all playing the same game, but within a single group, everybody needs to be on the same page, or the game doesn’t work (or at least doesn’t work very well).  So let’s look at a few of the options and see what the pros and cons are.

For some people, it’s simple escapism.  In this model, playing D&D is much like going to a movie: you get to step out of the real world for a bit and live in a more exciting place.  But the problem with that is that a movie is a passive experience.  If you’re doing it properly, you’re just absorbing the story that someone else has built for you.  D&D needs to be more active than that—you must be a participant, not merely an observer.

Other people take the view that D&D itself doesn’t have any one objective, but rather that it’s a game like Fluxx,2 where the objective for each game is different, and may even change mid-game.  And I’ll agree that each individual adventure or campaign should have a goal, and it’s good to recognize that, but I think this view misses the bigger picture.  D&D is not just a collection of various disconnected campaigns: there is a common thread that ties them all together.

Some people treat D&D like fantasy dinner theater, and use it to show off their acting chops.  This is a particularly tricky one to address, because it’s absolutely true that you need to inhabit another person.  And sometimes would-be actors can make excellent D&D players.  But the analogy is not perfect: acting is about taking an existing character and bringing it to life by the way you move and speak.  D&D is about inventing a character from scratch, and detailing their adventures.  It’s much closer to writing a play than it is to starring in one.  And players don’t have to act to do that, and shouldn’t be made to feel inferior if they can’t or don’t want to.

But the most insidious one of all is when people just can’t help themselves and try to inject an element of competition into it.  Sometimes this manifests as a competition among the players—my character can do more damage per hit than yours! oh, yeah, well my character can run faster, jump farther, and climb better than yours! yeah, but you both suck more than me, because my character can take the most damage without going down—and that’s what leads to min/max-ing and munchkinism.  Sometimes instead the game becomes a showdown between players and GM: the latter tries to kill everyone, while the former try to dispatch all enemies thrown at them so quickly that the GM goes “awwww.”  But neither of those strategies makes for a good story—the one is a pointless tragedy and the other lacks any tension or drama.

For me (and the many other roleplayers who share my views), roleplaying is storytelling.  The object of the game is to create a magnificient, shared story.  A story requires many things: an interesting setting, a plot filled with action and tension, and most of all great characters.  The players will each provide one character, who will be a co-protagonist, and the GM will provide the supporting cast, the background characters, and of course the antagonists.  Each person brings to the table a certain amount of shared experience—these days, it’s a safe bet that we’ve all seen or read The Lord of the Rings, and probably Game of Thrones, and probably experienced some form of Conan,3 and probably played some version of The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy.  Each person will also bring some amount of idiosyncratic experience—some of us will have seen Brotherhood of the Wolf, or Willow, and others won’t; some of us will have read Imajica, or the Magic Kingdom of Landover series, and some won’t; some will have played one or more of the Elder Scrolls games, or one of the Zork games, and some won’t; some will have read The Sandman, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and some won’t.  All these influences will mesh, and cross-pollinate, and together we will forge a story that will be even more amazing than all of these others, because it will be our story.

And we will tell these stories.  We’ll tell them to each other, years from now, to remember the good times.  We’ll tell them to our friends and family, although for the most part they won’t appreciate them.  And, most amazing of all, we will tell them to utter strangers that we’re meeting for the first time, and who we just happened to discover also play, or used to play, pen-n-paper roleplaying games, and they will tell us their stories, and we will laugh, and we will gasp, and we will congratulate each other on the ingenuity of our characters, and the luck and the skill of our party, and the incredible nature of our stories.  Any person, of any age, from any culture: once you find that you both have roleplayed, the stories will begin to flow, like magic.

Which is appropriate, because D&D is a fantasy game, so if you happen to be playing D&D, as opposed to one of the many other fine PnP RPGs out there, you’re going to be building a fantasy story.  Oh, sure: there will probably be elements of sci-fi, and horror, and perhaps even historical drama, but primarily it’s a fantasy genre, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Fantasy traditionally has excellent villains, both of the blacker-than-black and decidedly-gray varieties, depending on your tastes.  It allows for physical heroism, quick wits, political maneuvering, camaraderie and romance and betrayal, the amassment of truly magnificent levels of power by some characters, and yet the saving of the day by perfectly ordinary folks with no aspirations to grandeur who just had the fortitude and the courage to step up and do the right thing.  Plus you get to stab things with your sword and sling magic spells around—what’s not to love?

So this will be an epic story, and all we have to do to make it so and keep it so is follow a few simple rules.  We build epic and interesting characters.  We make sure that those characters only die when it’s dramatically appropriate.  We make sure that everyone has an equal stake in the story so it doesn’t get sabotaged by pointless competition.  And we make sure that everything we do—everything we have our characters do, to be more precise—makes logical sense.  Simple example: some gaming groups will say, if player X can’t make it to the game tonight, we’ll just say their character disappears for this session and reappears next time.  I can’t go along with that.  Why not?  Simple: it borks the story.  If you were reading a book, and it was getting good, and then the author wrote:

When the party awoke the next morning, Hafnir was gone.  His animal companion and all his magical items were also missing, although his share of the food and supplies remained behind.  “Oh, well,” shrugged Delea.  “I guess we’ll see him later.  Now let’s finish tracking down those orcs!”

I think you would find this somewhat infuriating, because not only does it make no logical sense that a character simply disappeared right in the middle of things, but it makes even less sense that his beloved companions of lo these many months would simply ignore his absence.  It would ruin the story for you.  In my games, if a player can’t make it, they have to accept whatever fate befalls their character.  We might keep them around and let another player run the character, we might have them knocked unconscious the first chance we get and just lug their comatose body around, or I might have them kidnapped and held for ransom just to keep things interesting.  But, however we handle it, it will make sense in the context of the ongoing story.4

The other important mechanical consequence of treating roleplaying as storytelling is my attitude towards balance.  Some D&D players are obsessed with balance.  This class is overpowered, they’ll say.  This class is mechanically weak and no one will ever want to play it.  This multiclass combination could only possibly appeal to munchkins—in fact, I have read people online claiming that all multiclassing is a sign of powergaming.  This is bollocks.  As a player, I love multiclassing, because I have weird, atypical ideas for characters, and multiclassing is often the best (and sometimes only) way to achieve that.  As a GM, I cut way back on the chances that you will use multiclassing—or homebrew classes/races/weapons/whatever, or just plain special requests to bend the rules—to min/max by demanding more detailed backstories for the characters.  If your backstory supports your crazy combination of things, then your GM supports it too.  Everything has to make a certain amount of sense, yes, but let’s not ignore the Rule of Cool.  Remember: we’re trying to tell an awesome story here.  I’m not going to let you have massive amounts of HP at first level or anything, but if you want to have a magic weapon when you first start out, perhaps because it’s a bequest from your father, who was killed in the Great Goblin Wars, I’m not gonna say “no” to that.  I might give you a penalty to use it until the weapon “warms up” to you or somesuch, because balance should never be ignored entirely, but as a GM my general rule is “don’t say ‘no’; say ‘yes, but ...’”

In fact, nothing I ever tell you as a GM should ever be construed as meaning “no.”  If you say “my character will be a dwarven sailor,” and I say “in this world, all dwarves are terrified of water,” that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your character concept.  It just means you’re going to have to work extra hard to come up with a reason why they exist.  Perhaps they weren’t actually raised by dwarves.  Perhaps they were blessed as a baby by a naiad.  Perhaps, as a child, they fell into the ocean, and their family was sure they were lost forever, but then they were saved by a mermaid.  Go crazy: your creativity will be rewarded.  Likewise, if you say “my character will try to jump over the chasm,” and I say, “you don’t think that’s a good idea: it looks like it’s too far,” that also doesn’t mean you can’t make the attempt.  I’m just trying to gently talk you out of something which may get you killed.5  But, hey: if you really have to try it, that’s your business.  I’m not gonna stop you.  ‘Cause it will probably make the adventure more interesting, whether you succeed against all odds, or whether you fall and your companions have to figure out how to rescue your broken and battered body.

And, you know what?  Either way it goes, it’ll make a great story.


1 In fact, I’ve lifted whole sentences from that previous post.  Please forgive me for that, but I don’t want to rewrite something that sounded perfect the first time around just to avoid charges of self-plagiarism.

2 Or, to a lesser extent, like my other great passion: Heroscape.

3 Be it the original short stories by Robert E. Howard, the authorized fan-fiction of people like L. Sprague de Camp, the comics by Thomas and Buscema, the movies starring Schwarzenegger, or one of the many videogames.  Conan is truly a cross-media barbarian.

4 Also, the player will not be nervous about their character, because they are confident in the power of our shared story: everyone in the group wants the best—which generally means the most interesting—things for every character.

5 Okay, not permanently killed, since I don’t kill characters.  But really really messed up.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

More quotes for our time

I had really hoped to get you a full post this week—I even started on one already—but the tyranny of the birthday weekend has other plans for me.  For now, I’ll give you another quickie quotes post.

Amongst the great quotables, everyone knows Voltaire and Mark Twain, Confucius and Ghandi.  Most know Will Rogers and Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce and Dave Barry.  But not enough people know H. L. Mencken.

Ever heard of the Scopes Monkey Trial?  Well, Mencken is the one who named it.  He was an American newspaperman and author who was most prolific during the period of World War I to World War II, but many of his quotes ring true today with a foresight that is almost eerie.

Of course, he was not a perfect man, as no historical figure is.  As his Wikipedia article is quick to point out, he was extremely racist, and he once wrote “war is a good thing.”  He also didn’t believe in populism and was quite a big fan of Ayn Rand.  Which makes it all the more curious to me that his words are such a clear indictment of our current president, who it seems he probably would have personally thought well of.  For instance, he once noted:

It is [a politician’s] business to get and hold his job at all costs.  If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths.  His ear is ever close to the ground.

    — H. L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926

Of course, one could argue that Trump doesn’t have much truck with embracing truths, new or otherwise.  However, it is true that Trump has an amazing ability to tap into people’s fears: economic fears, xenophobic fears, isolationist fears.  And, of course, Mencken has a comment for us on that too:

Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.

    — H. L. Mencken, In Defense of Women, 1918

Again, this is highly amusing, given Mencken’s personal views: one could easily imagine that he would have been fully in favor of, say, bans on refugees.  But PolitiFact rates the commonly touted opposition statistic that your chances of being killed by a refugee are 1 in 3.6 billion as “mostly true,” primarily because the statement should more properly be considered to be “your chances of being killed on American soil by a refugee in an act of terrorism are 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”  Still pretty low.  And, while it’s true that the study this is based on excludes the 3 people that died in the Boston Marathon bombings because those perpetrators were not refugees but rather their family has been granted political asylum—an admittedly nitpicky distinction—it’s still a wash because the only people that the study could identify as having been killed by terrorist refugees were 3 people killed prior to the 1980 Refugee Act, which radically increased how hard it is to get refugee status.*  So I think it’s safe to call this fear of refugees, which is being masterfully played on by Trump and many other politicians, as imaginary.  As Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu pointed out when he originally trotted out this statistic, your chances of being struck by lightning twice is 1 in 9 million.  You know, just for comparison purposes.

Given the recent WikiLeaks dump on the CIA’s ability to turn your televsion into a listening device, I found this one pretty spot-on as well:

Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.

    — H. L. Mencken, 1920

Ah, if all we had to worry about were letter-openers.  Those were truly the good ol’ days.

I’ll leave you with that thought for this week.  Next week I hope to have a more regular post.


* Also, classifying those incidents as “terrorism” is a bit dicey, and 2 of the 3 people killed weren’t American, although they were on American soil at the time.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A quick quote

Partially due to the prior craziness of this month not having completely abated yet, partially due to a somewhat exhausting trip to Disneyland this week, and partially due to coming into our March birthday season, there’s no time for a full post this week.  However, I will give you a partial post by sharing one of my many favorite quotes.

When it comes to non-fiction television, there are only a few shows that I regularly watch:
  • The Daily Show (with Trevor Noah)
  • @Midnight (with Chris Hardwick)
  • The Late Show (with Stephen Colbert)
  • Last Week Tonight (with John Oliver)
  • Full Frontal (with Samantha Bee)
That’s it.  No reality TV, no sports, no cooking shows,* no travel shows, no talk shows, no hard news ... outside of the occasional nature documentary or science show with my kids, there ain’t nothing else.  And you can see the pattern here: these are all shows where I can find out what’s going on in the world, but they make me laugh at it instead of depressing the hell out of me.

Of course, the first 3 of these also have guests: often celebrities of some type or other—actors, directors, musicians, politicians, sports stars—but sometimes less well-known folks, like lesser-known authors, activists, historians, political commentators, or journalists.  I have an interesting take on the celebrities,** but the other guests are usually more intriguing.  They’re typically people I’ve never heard of before (unless they were previously guests on one of these 3 shows), and they often have really interesting stories, which they have a few minutes to spit out on the air in ultra-condensed form, and sometimes they say very cool things.  Here’s a quick example.

Wes Moore is a fellow that Wikipedia describes as “an American author, social entrepreneur, producer, political analyst, and decorated US Army officer.”  The man has done a veritable shitload of things in his less-than-40 years on the planet, and he’s quite an impressive guest on a show like those I mention above: knowledgeable, articulate, and passionate.  On February 4th of 2015, Jon Stewart interviewed him on The Daily Show.  You can watch the entire clip on the Internet if you like,*** but for purposes of this quick post I want to just mention one thing he said:

Every day you’re doing what you’re not passionate about, you become extraordinarily ordinary.

    — Wes Moore, quoting a mentor of his

As I sometimes do when I hear a quote worthy of capturing, I had to stop (in this case, pause the DVR) and digest that for a minute, then back up and transcribe it, going over and over it several times to make sure I had it down exactly.  ‘Cause that’s just damned inspiring.  I have tried to focus my life on doing things that I’m passionate about, and I hope I’ve managed to instill that in my children as well.  But I have never been able to say what Wes Moore said so succinctly or clearly: don’t waste your time on things you’re not passionate about.  Don’t even bother.  Because that’s how you fade into obscurity, and perhaps even worse: that’s how you deprive the world of your talent.  I thank Mr. Moore for sharing his wisdom with me.

Which I’ve now passed on to you, in case you missed it the first time around.  Hopefully it will inspire you as it has me.  Until next week, go out and do something you’re passionate about.  I plan to as well.


* I used to watch Good Eats, but it’s not on any more.  And Iron Chef, in most all of its incarnations.  But I gave up on cooking shows.

** Which is probably worthy of its own blog post someday.

*** And if you can stand to deal with Comedy Central’s horrible player, which generally I can’t.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Penumbral Phosphorescence I

"And Death Scourged Her"

[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.]

My mixes get started in various ways.  Often I just hear a song that reminds me of another song, and I start to build a mix around it.  Sometimes I “split” a mix: I realize that several songs that I’ve slotted into one mix actually have a character all their own which is slightly distinct from the original.  And sometimes I just wake up and go “hey! why don’t have a mix for ... ?”  And several months ago I realized I didn’t have a mix of goth music.

Now, I’m not a huge goth fan, but I do enjoy it quite a bit, and I have plenty of goth music lying around ... more than enough to make a mix out of.  In fact, this mix will have no trouble growing to multiple volumes if I want it to.  And yet I’d never sat down and made a goth mix.  Obviously it was time to correct that.

Now, many people have the impression that goth music is slow, and depressing, and perhaps a bit creepy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Oh, sure: some goth is all that.  The occasional song or three on pretty much every goth album ever made is exactly that.  But an album is generally 8 – 12 songs ... so if no more than 25% or so of goth music is the moody dirges that most people associate with the genre, then what is the other 75%?

It’s surprisingly high-energy, as it turns out.  The first-wave goth bands, like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, and Bauhaus, came out of the punk movement.  The second-wave goth bands, like Sisters of Mercy, the Mission, and Fields of the Nephilim, eventually led to goth-metal.  Much of modern goth, like Faith and the Muse and the later Clan of Xymox work, has strong ties to industrial.  As a result, goth can be hard-edged, danceable, or simply finger-snapping sing-along.  Now, don’t get me wrong: it still has to drip with atmosphere, have a certain lyrical darkness, play with some discordancy or minor chords.  If it didn’t do that, it wouldn’t be proper goth.  But if you’re looking for slow and foreboding, this is not the mix for that.1  This mix showcases music which is dark, but also has a certain, shimmering light in it, like bioluminescent fungi and insects in a cave ...

Sometimes the lyrics here are stereotypically goth.  They’re about night, and the moon, and madness, and post-nuclear wastelands.  Or they have Wiccan themes: our volume title is from the spoken-word intro to Unto Ash’s “Der Letzte Ritter,”2 which in turn quotes a Wiccan legend called “The Descent of the Goddess”:

And she knelt, and Death scourged her, and she cried: “I feel the pangs of love.”3

Or this passage from Faith and the Muse’s “Sovereign,” which also has a very Wiccan feel to it:

In the presence of a moment divine,
As the shadows gather at the shrine,
We retreat and advance
In the spell of the dance,
Familiars all

At the other end of the spectrum, Fad Gadget’s “Collapsing New People” seems to be a not-so-subtle dig at goth culture:

Exaggerate the scar tissue
Wounds that never heal
Takes hours of preparation
To get that wasted look

But I think the main thing we forget is that “gothic horror” came well after “gothic art,” and in particular “gothic architecture.”  The primary characteristic of anything “goth” must first and foremost be a sense of drama and spectacle.  If that drama and spectacle is obssessed with death, then so much the better, but it’s really the scope and gravitas that is crucial.

For this opening volume, I’ve made some obvious choices, although picking the right song from an obvious artist is often tough.  For Siouxsie, I chose “Cities in Dust,” although of course “Spellbound” would also have been an excellent choice.  But honestly I just like “Cities in Dust” better: it has a shimmery quality that I feel epitomizes the mood of this mix.  For Sisters of Mercy, “This Corrosion” would have been the obvious choice,4 but in the end I went with “Black Planet,” which just seemed to fit better in this set.  For Bauhaus, I suppose most people would have gone with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” but I’ve always liked “Silent Hedges” better.  The Mission offers lots of great choices, but I stuck with what was probably their biggest hit, “Wasteland,” which opens with Wayne Hussey’s nearly whispered “I still believe in God, but God no longer believes in me” (and if that doesn’t sum up goth in one sentence, I don’t know what would).  Faith and the Muse’s rollicking “Sovereign” was also a no-brainer.  And for the Cure I didn’t even hesitate: it had to be “Three Imaginary Boys.”  Yes, yes: “Fascination Street,” and “One Hundred Years,” and even “A Forest.”5  But “Three Imaginary Boys” has the echoey vocals and creeping menace that project a dark fever-dream, and though the tempo is fairly slow throughout, there’s quite a jarring guitar break that shows that goth isn’t wimpy, which is rather the point of this mix.

Of course, the term “goth” is often used interchangeably with “darkwave,” but I reserve the latter term for the more ethereal, dreampop-influenced bands that we’ve mostly seen so far on Smokelit Flashback and Shadowfall Equinox: Black Tape for a Blue Girl, Falling You, Love Spirals Downwards, and so forth.  Still, darkwave has something to offer here.  Unto Ashes is ostensibly a darkwave band, although “Der Letzte Ritter” is a bit more energetic than their usual fare.  One might describe Candian/American duo Desire as darkwave, I suppose, but I find “Under Your Spell” to be closer to witchhouse.6  That is, it has strong electronica roots, but still retains a nice darkness that makes it work well here.  Cocteau Twins is of course the quintessential dreampop band, but their first album, Garlands, is pretty solidly goth: I consider it evidence that dreampop forked off from goth in the first place, and darkwave is just an attempt to bring dreampop back to its roots.  “Wax and Wane” is not a high-energy song, exactly, but it’s pretty high-energy for the Cocteaus.  Then we have Carol Tatum, the mastermind of Angels of Venice, which is primarily a neoclassical/new age act.  Here she solicits Seraphim Shock’s lead singer Charles Edward7 to produce a strange fusion, of which I think “Primitive Kiss” is the absolute best.  And of course one of the first bands to be called “darkwave” at all was Xymox, who so far we’ve only seen on Shadowfall Equinox.  And, when they go by that name, they are indeed far too mellow for this mix.  But their original moniker was Clan of Xymox, which they returned to after their darkwave phase, also returning to a more proper gothic sound.  “Hail Mary” is a fairly late effort from them, but it’s the sort of tune that builds beautifully and really grows on you: the more I hear it, the more I feel that gothic sense of melodrama.  It’s an excellent closer for this volume.

There’s also some connection between goth and synthpop/new wave.  With Sympathy, the debut from Ministry, who would eventually come to epitomize the sound of goth-adjacent industrial, was a solidly synthpop effort.  Now, Alain Jourgensen has often said that that’s only because the label remixed it into something he now wishes to disavow.  But I’ve listened to this album many times, and I tell you straight: if this album weren’t synthpop, it wouldn’t be industrial—it would be goth.  I mean, come on! it’s got red roses and black-painted fingernails right on the cover.  In terms of early Ministry, some people might prefer “Every Day Is Halloween,” but I think “Effigy” is pretty spot on here.  And of course it’s hard to get synthpoppier than Depeche Mode.  One of the smoothest transitions on this volume8 is from “Wasteland” to “Fly on the Windscreen.”  While Depeche Mode certainly isn’t a goth band, some of their music has goth leanings, and in my opinion they have one album which is pretty solidly goth, back to front: Black Celebration.  “Fly on the Windscreen” is pretty much their all-time gothiest, and I couldn’t resist putting it here.  Plus, like I say: it flows so beautifully off the end of the Mission that often you don’t notice you’ve transitioned from the one song to the next until you hear Dave Gahan’s vocals kick in.

For more proper new wave, it’s tough to beat Fad Gadget.  I loved “Collapsing New People” when I first heard it, back on WHFS while I was living in DC.  But I never knew who sang it.  I recently stumbled upon Fad Gadget completely by accident and rediscovered this lost classic, which I now gift to you.  In more general alt-rock terms, Jesus and Mary Chain isn’t really a goth band, but their excellent album Darklands is pretty goth-inspired, and the title track works nicely here.  And of course Peter Murphy is goth royalty, having fronted Bauhaus for its original, highly influential run, as well as for all its subsequent reunions.  I think the amazing Deep is the closest Murphy gets to recreating Bauhaus, and I went with the unreleased “Seven Veils” as an excellent example of a more powerful track that still oozes goth atmosphere.

Penumbral Phosphorescence I
    [And Death Scourged Her]

        “Der Letzte Ritter” by Unto Ashes, off Moon Oppose Moon
        “Sovereign” by Faith and the Muse, off :ankoku butoh:
        “Primitive Kiss” by Carol Tatum, off Ancient Delirium
        “In the Wake of Adversity” by Dead Can Dance, off Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
        “Black Planet” by The Sisters of Mercy, off First and Last and Always
        “Under Your Spell” by Desire, off II
        “Collapsing New People” by Fad Gadget, off Gag
        “Effigy (I'm Not An)” by Ministry, off With Sympathy
        “Wasteland” by The Mission, off Godʼs Own Medicine
        “Fly on the Windscreen (final)” by Depeche Mode, off Black Celebration
        “Seven Veils” by Peter Murphy, off Deep
        “Pretty” by The Cranberries, off Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
        “Three Imaginary Boys” by The Cure, off Boys Don't Cry
        “Silent Hedges” by Bauhaus, off The Sky's Gone Out
        “Wax and Wane” by Cocteau Twins, off Garlands
        “Darklands” by The Jesus and Mary Chain, off Darklands
        “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie and the Banshees, off Tinderbox
        “Hail Mary” by Clan of Xymox, off In Love We Trust
Total:  18 tracks,  79:17

In the “unlikely candidates” category, there’s really only one real stretch here: “Pretty” by the Cranberries.  It’s not really a goth tune, but it has a certain darkness that I find irresistible, as well that shimmering quality I’ve been trying to capture here, so it ended up on this mix quite early, even though I kept looking at as if I were playing a game of “one of these things is not like the others.”

And, finally, I don’t think you can put together a list of songs anywhere near the category of goth without featuring at least one tune from Dead Can Dance.  That band is not goth at all: it’s primarly a dreampop-worldmusic fusion.  And yet there is an undeniable goth energy in many of DCD’s albums, as evidenced by the fact that every Dead Can Dance tribute album9 is full of darkwave and goth-metal artists.  Of course, as a proper dreampop band, much of DCD’s output is far too mellow for this mix.  But they do have a song every now and again which pulses with a dark energy that makes it perfect for this mix.  “In the Wake of Adversity,” which sees Brendan Perry sing:

Hey, Patrice, don’t cry;
They’ve no reason to harm you at all.
They don’t realize
That the angels surround you with light.

was too good not to include here.

Next time, we’ll return once more to the halls of Morpheus.


1 There certainly are mixes for that, of course, some of which we’ve already seen and some which we shall come to in the fullness of time.

2 Which is German for “The Last Knight.”  Most of the song is in German, but the intro is in English.

3 As with all sacred texts, the exact wording of this passage varies depending on the source.  Most versions I’ve read phrase it as “Death scourged her tenderly.”

4 And it will definitely show up on volume II, unless I steal it for another mix first.

5 The last of which will almost certainly be featured on volume II.

6 A subgenre we’ll no doubt hear more from on volume II.

7 I’m not a huge fan of Seraphim Shock, but there’s a decent chance we’ll see them on future volumes.

8 And probably in the top 10 for any volume on any of my mixes, really.

9 Such as The Lotus Eaters or The Carnival Within.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The weather, she is a-changin'

This has been a difficult week on several fronts, and I’m unfortunately running behind on quite a few things I oughtn’t be.  So I’m going to take a week off from pretending like you’re ignoring my advice and reading this blog anyway.  If you notice, that’ll just be a bonus.

In the meantime, something you could do instead would be to ponder how California has gone, seemingly without transition, from drought to flooding.  I mean, obviously “global warming” is a hoax, because snow is still a thing that happens.  But I think it’s fair to say that the climate is definitely changing ...

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Perl blog post #54

Today I’ve posted an update on a couple of my CPAN modules over on my Other Blog.  While it is somewhat technical in the later paragraphs—even including some actual code this time!—it also includes some introductory paragraphs where I ramble on about my tendency to be distracted easily and how I probably have ADHD and I probably won’t even make it to the end of this.  So you may wish to at least read the first few bits and then tune out once you feel like it got too technogeeky and your brain checked out.  And then you can feel just like I do when I get tired of my latest project.

But after that you’re on your own.  Okay, I’ll give you one minor suggestion: I did just finish Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on Netflix, and I quite recommend it.  Eddie Marsan and Marc Warren alone would make it worthwhile, but the remainder of the cast, plus an excellent adaption of Susanna Clarke’s riveting story, makes it unmissable.  Just my 2¢ worth.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Lifelong Quest

This is not exactly a technology post, and it’s not exactly a gaming post, and it’s not exactly a (personal) history post, but in a way it’s all of those things rolled into one.  Let me start by telling you a little story.

When I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years old, our family got a new computer: a Commodore 64, which was, at that time, state of the art.  I always thought that we bought it specifically for me, but my father corrected me a few years back, telling me that he originally bought it for himself, but he couldn’t really figure out how to work it, so he figured he’d see if I had any better luck.  I did, as it turned out, and it was the beginning of my programming career.  I think that pretty much anything you do as a career (as opposed to just a job) has to start out with you doing something for fun.  Otherwise you’re just in it for the paycheck.

The first program I ever wrote (which was in BASIC) looked like this:

20 GOTO 10

The second program I ever wrote was a D&D character generator.

Now, I tell you this story to let you know exactly how long I’ve been trying to program a D&D character sheet.  My obsession has carried me across 35 years of technology, and it’s driven many of my decisions as to what to learn.  I quickly learned I had to give up on BASIC (too slow), so I taught myself assembly.1  I dove very deep into the formula languages of first Lotus 1-2-3, then Excel, and now Google Sheets, so that I could do spreadsheet-based character sheets, and I taught myself VBA when that wasn’t enough, and now I’m almost sort of proficient in Javascript for the same reason.2  The first database I ever learned—dBase III, that would have been—I didn’t learn for the purpose of making character sheets, but it was the thought that it might be used for that purpose that drove me ever deeper into the language.  Same with SQL.  I’ve done very little GUI programming, but most of what little I have done—Delphi, and wxWindows, and Django, and Gantrywas mined for what it could teach me about how to make interfaces for D&D players.  I’ve written DSLs for dice-rolling, and extensions to Template Toolkit, and I even tried to write a “better” spreadsheet in Perl once, all so I could program the perfect character sheet.  If I ever get around to writing my SQL-language-extension, which will probably be done in Perl 6, one of the first things I’ll do with it is integrate classes with DB tables for aspects of D&D characters.

And, the sad part is, I’ve been doing this over and over again for 35 years, and it’s never worked properly.  There are a myriad of reasons for this.  A character sheet is a huge quantity of interrelated numbers with complex interdependencies, which make it almost perfect to render as a spreadsheet.  But the rules are just baroque and irregular enough to make it a breeze for the first 50% and practically impossible for the last 25%.  Contrariwise, the amount of dependent recalculation means that it’s a giant pain in the ass to do in a general programming language, unless you fancy trying to reinvent the spreadsheet wheel.3  The amount of data that needs to be stored, as well as the number of set operations necessary, mean that a database solution (such as SQL) is pretty attractive, for certain aspects.  But trying to do that much recalculation in a database language is even more terrifying than trying to do it in Perl or C++, and most of the parts Excel can’t handle, SQL is even worse at.

The thing that makes a database application or language really attractive, though, is the place where spreadsheets really fall down: separation of code and data.  If I write a program in a general language, I have code and then, elsewhere, I have data.4  In a database application, the line may be a bit blurrier, but the separation is there, and the proof is, I can give you updated code, and that doesn’t change your data a whit.  Not so with spreadsheets.  With those, the code and the data are one piece.  If I give you an updated spreadsheet, it comes with its own data (which is always blank).  But say you’ve already got a character sheet: it’s full of your data—you know, for your character.  Hell, the reason you wanted the upgrade in the first place was no doubt that you found a bug in my code, or maybe I just added a new feature that you really need.  But now there’s no way for you to migrate that data out of the old sheet and into the new.

Now start multiplying that problem.  If you’re a D&D player, you probably have lots of characters.  And how many people are using this spreadsheet thingy anyways?  My very first fully functional Excel spreadsheet was only used for one character each by 3 players (i.e. the 3 players in that particular campaign I was running)—and myself as the GM, of course—and it was a nightmare every time I updated the sheet.  A D&D character is not a huge amount of data, especially not when compared to big data or even the database of a middling-sized business, but it’s also pretty much nothing but data.  You don’t want to have to re-enter all of it every time I fix a bug.  To use the appropriate technobabble, this is a separation of concerns issue, and more specifically having to do with the separation of code vs data.  Of course, it’s quite fashionable these days (among technogeeks, anyway) to argue that code and data are the same thing, but I can only suppose that the people making those arguments never had to release code updates to users.5  I only had three users and I was going crazy trying to figure out how to separate my code from my data.

(To delve a bit deeper into the technical side of the problem, what I really want is for someone to invent a spreadsheet that’s actually just an interface into a database.  The spreadsheet programmer “ties” certain cells to certain columns of certain tables in the database, and the spreadsheet user is only allowed to enter data into those specific cells.  There could be multiple rows in the spreadsheet, corresponding to multiple rows in the table, and it would be easy to add a new one.  Sorting or filtering the rows wouldn’t affect the underlying data.  The database back-end might need some tweaking as well—what if the user enters a formula into a data cell instead of a constant?—but ideally it could use a standard datastore such as MySQL.  Somebody get on inventing this right away, please.  I don’t ask for any financial consideration for the idea ... just make sure I’m your first beta tester.)

But the problems with realizing the perfect computerized character sheet aren’t all technical.  A lot of it has to do with house rules.  If you’re not familiar with D&D, this may not make sense.  You may think house rules are simple little things, like getting cash when you land on Free Parking in Monopoly.  But RPGs (of which D&D is the grandaddy of them all) have a whole different relationship to house rules.  House rules can change anything, at any time, and the rulebooks actively encourage you to use them.  “GM fiat” is a well-entrenched concept, and that includes pretty much everything involved in character creation.  2nd edition D&D said only humans could be paladins, but many GMs threw that rule out.  3rd edition said multiclassed characters had to take an experience point penalty, but a lot of groups never enforced that.  What if a GM wants to change the value of some bonus granted by some feature? what if they want to raise the maxima for something? or lift the restrictions on something else?  What if they want to change the frequency of something, like feats gained, or ability score increases?

The complexity—but, more importantly, the prevalenceof house rules is death on a character sheet program.  In a fundamental way, programming is codifying rules, and if the rules aren’t fixed ...  Even when I’m noodling around with designing a character sheet that will only be useful for me and my friends, I still hit this problem, because we don’t all agree on what the house rules should be, and we’re constantly changing our minds.  Imagine how much more difficult it is to come up with something that will be useful to all gamers: there’s a reason that D&D has been around for over 40 years and no one has yet solved this problem.  Oh, sure: there are lots of attempts out there, some done with spreadsheets, some as database front-ends, and some as general programs.  But this is not a solved problem, by any means, and all of them have some area where they fall down.  Again, the prevalence of house rules in roleplaying is a crucial thing here, because it means that you can’t just say, “well, I’ll just make a program that works as long as you’re not using any house rules at all, and that’ll be better than nothing,” because now your userbase is about 4 or 5 people.  It’s hardly worth the effort.

So it’s not an easy problem, although I often feel like that’s a pretty feeble excuse for why I’ve been working on what is essentially the same program for 35 years and never managed to finish it.  But I’m feeling pretty good about my latest approach, so, if you’ll indulge me in a bit (more) technobabble, I’ll tell you basically how it works.

First, after a long hiatus from the spreadsheet angle, I’m back to it, but this time using Google Sheets.  Although I’ve already hit the complexity wall6 with ‘Sheets, it took much longer to get to than with Excel.7  Plus it has a number of things I never had with Excel:8 you can sort and filter in array formulae, and you have both unique and join.  Much more intelligent handling of array formulae is the biggest win for me with Google Sheets; in many other areas (particularly cell formatting) it still trails Excel, to my annoyance.  But it mainly means that I never have to program extensions, as I did with Excel.  Plus, when I do decide to use some extensions (mainly to make complex/repetitive tasks easier), I get to program in Javascript, which is almost a tolerable languaage, as opposed to VBA, which is decidedly not.  I still have the code/data problem, but I’ve come up with a moderately clever solution there: all my “input cells” (which I color-code for ease-of-use) don’t start out blank, but rather with formulae that pull data from a special tab called “LoadData,” which is itself blank.  Then there’s another tab called “SaveData,” which contains a bunch of formulae that pull all the data from the input cells: every input cell has a corresponding row on the “SaveData” tab.  When you want to upgrade your sheet, you can rename the existing sheet, grab a new (blank) copy of the upgraded sheet, go to “SaveData” on the old sheet, select-all, copy, go to “LoadData” in the new sheet, then paste values.9  (And again: I coded up a little Javascript extension for the sheet that will do all that for you, but you still could do it manually if you needed to for any reason.)  Now, this isn’t perfect: the biggest downside is that, if you happen to know what you’re doing and you actually stick a formula into an input cell, that’s going to get lost—that is, it’ll silently revert to the actual current value—when you upgrade your sheet.  But that’s moderately rare, and it works pretty awesomely for the 95% of other cases where you need to transfer your data.  I still miss the ability to do database ops (e.g. SQL),10 and I absolutely miss the ability to make classes and do inheritance, but so far I haven’t found any problem that I can’t solve with enough applications of match and offset, hidden columns, and tabs full of temporary results.  (To be fair, I’ve postponed solving several problems, and I have a lot of “insert arbitrary bonus here” input cells, but those actually help out in the presence of house rules, so I don’t mind ’em.)

So I feel like I’m closer now than I ever have been before.  Sure, this one will only work for D&D, and only for one edition of D&D,11 but if I can make it work for pretty much any such character, that’ll still be the closest to fulfilling my dream that I’ve achieved thus far.  I’ve got a lot more testing to do before I can make that claim, and several more character types to flesh out (I haven’t done very much with spellcasters at all, and monks are alwyays a giant pain in the ass), but it looks promising, and I’m starting to get just a little bit excited about it.  Which is why I wanted to share it with you.  And also because it’s been consuming a fair amount of my free time lately, so I thought it might be good to get some details out there for posterity.  Maybe one day, if you’re a D&D player, you’ll be using a version of my character sheet on your laptop at the gaming table.

Or maybe I’ll still be working on it in the nursing home.  Either way, it should be fun.


1 For the 6510, this would have been.  Although I didn’t really have any concept of that at the time; in fact, I really only know it now because Wikipedia just told me so.

2 That is, because Javascript is how you write extensions for Google Sheets, just as VBA was how you wrote them for Excel.

3 Which, as I mentioned, I actually tried to do once.  I didn’t fancy it.

4 Let’s pretend that where “elsewhere” is is not really important for a moment.  The truth, of course, is that it’s vitally important.  But these are not the droids you’re looking for.

5 Which is not unheard of.  A lot of code out there in the world doesn’t really have data entered by a user, and quite a chunk of it doesn’t even have “users” at all.  And a lot of programmers work exclusively on such code.  For those folks, this is an interesting philosophical debate as opposed to a self-obvious truth.

6 By which I mean the point at which a spreadsheet fails to recalculate certain cells for no apparent reason.  Generally if you just delete the formula and re-enter it, then everything works.  But it’s nearly always intermittent, and thus useless to complain about or report.  Every spreadsheet I’ve ever worked with has a complexity wall, and the character sheet app always manages to hit it eventually.

7 To be fair to Excel, that was a decade or two ago.  It might be better now.  But I bet it’s not.

8 Again, it’s possible that Excel may have one more of these features by now.

9 Well, except that Google Sheets currently has a bit of a bug with trying to paste values from one sheet to another.  But there’s a simple workaround, which is again a perfect reason to have a little code extension to do the steps for you.

10 Google Sheets has a query function that sort of lets you do pseudo-SQL on your data tables, but you can only refer to columns by letter, not name, so I consider it fairly useless.

11 Specifically, 5e, which I’ve talked about before on this blog.