Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy (slightly early) New Year's

Tonight is New Year’s Eve, and we’re all prepared to drink sparkling beverages and eat appetizers while we watch fireworks on TV.  We even got some ... well, we usually call them poppers in our house, but don’t try Googling that, unless you want to learn all sorts of new and exciting facts about drug culture.  (To be fair, I should have remembered that term from reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but that whole experience is a bit of a blur.  Which is to be expected, I suppose.)  Wikipedia has them listed as bang snaps, which is a super-bizarre term that I not only have never heard another human utter, but I’m relativley convinced that no human ever has uttered.  Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  But, anyways, we found a giant-size box of them at Costco (because, of course)—I’m pretty sure serious fireworks are illegal in California, but apparently a bit of silver fulminate slips under the wire—and we just couldn’t resist.  So we’re going to add a new component to our New Year’s Eve spectacular celebration, and then probably regret it tomorrow morning when our patio is littered with all the leftover cigarette paper bits.

Two weeks ago, I posted a bit more post-surgery news (check out the links in that post for further details, if you need them).  In that, I described the Smaller Animal’s suture granuloma and mentioned there was a chance they would want to do a second (although extremely minor) surgery to remove it.  Well, the good news this week is that we finally got him back to the hospital the day after Christmas (visit was delayed due to sickness), and spoke to a different doctor, who confirmed that, yes, the potential infection seemed to have disappeared, and, yes, that little black line at the bottom of the former bubble was indeed the stitch, and he could just cut the end off it and leave the rest and we could come back later if any more of it came close to the surface, and he could just do it right now, and just lay back, and I started to open my mouth to say “should I come around there and hold his hand while you do it?” and he said “it’s done.”  And we were like, oh.  Okay.  And then we came home.  So that’s done.

And that’s all I’ve got for you today, as per the new blog schedule.  Tune in next wek for a longer post.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

There's a Kind of Hush

This year my annual holiday-themed post is reaching you right on Christmas Eve.  And, when I say “holiday-themed,” I do actually mean that.  I’ve ranged the gamut from extensively quoting Jesus to exploring pagan Yule traditions, and I’ve at least touched on Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Pancha Ganapati, among others.  Plus I’ve given you not just one, but two mixes of alternative Christmas music.  (If you want to read all my past holiday posts, you can get the list in my series listing post on the informals.)

Typically I use this post to talk about why you should value your family, or feel goodwill towards the general populace, or that sort of thing.  And that’s an excellent message for Christmas Day, and also for Kwanzaa, and even Yule.  But Christmas Eve is, to me, more about anticipation.  It’s the sense of waiting, the calm before the storm of wrapping paper and videogames and Christmas cookies and telephone calls to absent family members.  This is mostly a good waiting, even though the kids can get frustrated sometimes that Christmas isn’t coming along fast enough for their tastes.  But that’s why we have separate traditions for Christmas Eve than for Christmas: it’s lots of stuff to get the little ones’ minds off the fact that they can’t bear to wait one more night.  Many people do their big Christmas meal on Christmas Eve, and some folks also open a single gift the night before, to help ease that crushing anticipation.  There are other traditions too, like the putting out of the Christmas cookies and milk (or eggnog, or beer, or whatever you think Santa will like best).  Or the hanging of the stockings, or the addition of one final Christmas ornament—in my parents’ house, for many years that was the placement of a holiday verison of the starship Enterprise on the mantel; when you pushed the button underneath, Spock flipped open his communicator and wished all of Starfleet a very merry Christmas.  These are all just distractions for the younger family members of course—with maybe just a touch of hopefully wearing them out so they’ll fall asleep quickly and Santa can come at last.

When I was a kid, Christmas Eve was for going over to my grandmother’s house, where we had the standard holiday mega-feast,1 followed by exchanging gifts with my grandparents, aunt and uncle, and my two cousins.  These gifts were often less serious, since the extended family were the people you had the least idea about what to buy.  So often you’d just give up trying to find something they actually wanted and just go straight for something that would make them laugh.  There was a long period of time when either me or my brother just counted down the moments till we could open our cheap cologne and proudly proclaim (in unison) in our best Eddie Murphy: “Brut! by Faberge.”  And everyone would giggle, though undoubtedly at least some of them had no clue what we were talking about.

So that’s what Christmas Eve means to me.  It’s a little bit of delicious anticipation, and a small measure of practice run for the serious gift unwrapping and eating to come, and a time to just take a breath ... sometimes, the last truly relaxing time of the year.  Tomorrow there will be schedules to keep and visits to make and instructions to read and phone calls to field.  But today ... today is just chill, and bask in the glory of family.

We have a lot to be thankful for this year, of course.  Our middle human child survived a fairly scary heart surgery with surprisingly little fallout, and I continue to have a great job where they put up with my eccentricities and pay me a comfortable wage to do so.  And we continue to live in a beautiful house, in beautiful sunny southern California, with lots of room for us to avoid each other when that’s necessary and to come together again when we need to, and a pool with a spa out back where the humans will spend nearly every afternoon in the summertime.  We’ve suffered losses, true: for several years now I’ve told you that our family consisted of 5 humans, 2 dogs, 3 cats, 1 guinea pig, and assorted fish and shrimp and snails, and last year we even added a bearded dragon.  This year we are but 5 humans, 2 dogs, 2 cats, and a fishtank ... a runaway and two funerals2 have shrunk the family size this year.3  But we all still feel very privileged to have each other, and to be lucky enough to expect a decent-sized bounty from the Big Man tomorrow.  So, today, we wait ...

Anticipation is a funny thing, if you think about it.  It’s torturous, especially when you’re smaller.  But it’s also exquisite—it’s a sensation to be savored, building to an inevitable climax of some almost unilaterally positive emotion: joy, or pleasure, or relief, or (in the case of Christmas) satisfaction, with a touch of decadence.  And, in just one more week, we’ll have New Year’s Eve, with even more anticipation, culminating in the release of a new year, a fresh start, the chance to put all the bad parts of the old year behind us,4 and embrace a new, as-yet-unsullied future.  Anticipation is nice, is what I’m saying; no matter how much you want it to be over, you can’t help reveling in it just a little.  Because it’s a sign that good things can still happen, are still happening.  It’s a sign of hope, and a sign of life.  And life goes on.

So that’s what Christmas Eve means to me.  From all of us here, to all of you out there, we hope your anticipation is just as savory as is ours.  And we hope that your Christmas (if you celebrate it) and your New Year’s (if you celebrate it) is glorious and wonderful and all that you hoped it would be.  And, even if you celebrate something else entirely, or perhaps your particular celebration has already been put to bed, we still wish you hope, and peace, and happiness.  Because you deserve it.

We all do.


1 “Holiday feast” in this case means it was basically the same meal for Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving, and Easter.

2 Honestly, one loss is so recent that there is one funeral yet to be conducted.

3 And, if you’re one of those people who think the animals don’t “count,” I’ll refer you to one of my earliest blogs to educate you that “pets” are people too, for the long version.  For the short version: I don’t judge your family; don’t judge mine.

4 And, let’s face it: if you happen to live in the United States, the old year has been overflowing with bad parts.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A bit more post-surgery news after all, as it turns out ...

Well, I had hoped that there would be no further surgery news to report as regards my middle child, a.k.a. the Smaller Animal.  But there’s a bit more, as it turns out.  If you’re not caught up on the latest, you may want to check out the last update and possibly work backward from there.  (Note that this counts as a partial post in my “off week,” according to the new blog schedule.)

This past week, the kid developed a “bubble” up at the top of his incision scar.  At first it just seemed like a skin irritation of some kind, but soon we could tell there was pus gathering underneath it.  So we took him back in to the cardiology department of Children’s Hospital, where they told us that he has a suture granuloma.  This is a type of abcess that develops when some part of the dissolvable stiches (generally one of the knots) doesn’t dissolve and/or get absorbed completely.  In this case, the granuloma is pretty solid and there’s no discharge, which means that there’s no sign of infection so far.  Also, the doctor pressed the granuloma pretty hard to make sure it wasn’t too delicate, so it seems unlikely that the abcess would rupture any time soon.  However, while the chance of infection is low, the danger is significant, because the site is directly over his heart.  If an infection were to settle in, and if it were to migrate down instead of outward, that would be pretty bad.

So they gave us two options:  1) Have a very minor surgery, essentially right away, to remove the suture remnants.  This would be light sedation (i.e. no intubation tube) but still full anæsthesia (i.e. no eating after midnight, we’d have to show up at the crack of dawn, etc).  2) Go on 10 days of antibiotics and give the stitch more time to get absorbed naturally.  At the end of that time, if there’s no improvement, he gets the minor surgery anyway.  But at least there’s a chance he could avoid it.

So we went with option #2.  Since 10 days from the day we went in is Christmas Eve, we’re going back on Friday.  Hopefully it ends up being a wasted trip entirely and they say, “nah, everything’s fine.”  And, even if they don’t, this type of minor procedure is nothing compared to what he’s survived so far with flying colors.  But, still: it’s a bit more stress, and it’s likely I’ll have to take another day off from work, which sort of bums me out due to a big project going on (although my work is very awesome about such things: my bosses—including our CEO—have already let me know that I shouldn’t worry about the project ... but of course I still will, because I’m me).

Now, in the couple of days since then, the abcess has collapsed, which might mean that it ruptured and all the pus leaked out.  Except that we can’t find any evidence of that.  So it could also mean that the antibiotics kicked the crap out of whatever infection was developing in there and now there’s nothing to worry about.  I’m thinking that, if it continues to look as benign as it does right now, we might take him in a day or two early to see if we can duck out of the surgery appointment.  Because the downside of maybe having to make that two-hour-long round-trip twice is easily outweighed by the upside of maybe not having to do the second trip at all.  But we’ll see.

So, it’s a very minor setback, and nothing for anyone to get too excited or worried about.  But I thought I’d let everyone know, in case it was of interest to those following along.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A modest proposal

After long and thoughtful consideration, I’ve decided to make this blog biweekly instead of weekly.

Now, I suppose I could just stop there—after all, if you’re taking my advice and are not, in fact, reading this blog, then I’m only talking to myself, and I already know why I’ve made this decision.  But there may be a few people out there who are interested, or perhaps I’m talking to myself, but in the future, when I may will have been forgotten why I came to this verdict.  Maybe future-me is thinking, hmmm, I should go back to doing blogs weekly ... it wasn’t that hard!  In which case future-me needs a dope-slap.  Or at least a good talking-to.  Which this post will have to serve as.

See, one starts a blog with the best of intentions.  It’s a way to keep one’s writing skills sharp, for one.  And you can put down all those pesky thoughts that are running your head liked trapped animals: get them out into the world where they might do some good, as opposed to making you crazy with unbirthed ideas.  And you pick a time interval—once a week, say—and you pick a rough post length—1,500 words, say—and you keep to that for a long time.  But eventually you miss one, and then it’s easier to miss the next one, and sooner or later you find yourself missing your goal regularly.  Because life happens.  Life pays no attention to your puny goals ... in fact, life often laughs maniacally in the face of those goals.  Life has a tendency to force you to prioritize, and, while I suppose there are some people who consistently prioritize their blogs over everything else (though I suspect those are only the people that don’t have any other job), most of us don’t.  We can’t all be professional writers, and I’m okay with that.  As I’ve said before, I originally became a programmer just to support myself while I worked on becoming a writer, but I’ve found so much joy in it that I have no regrets.

So, for me, a hard look at the priorities here means that the numbers don’t make sense to even attempt to prioritize this blog over other life stuff.  And such attempts would likely be fruitless anyway.  I mean, I’ve been trying to prioritize the blog over other things for quite a while now, and look how well that’s been going.  Prior to this one, I have exactly 400 posts on this blog, 37 of which are interstitials (that is, posts which essentially say “I’m not doing a post this week”) and 66 of which are partials (that is, shorter entries that I don’t consider full, “proper” posts).  That’s 26%.  But, if we look back at the most recent 100 posts (which takes us back almost exactly two years), there are 14 interstitials and 18 partials, which is 32%.  So the ratio of non-full posts is creeping up on me.  And, to add insult to injury, I still feel like I’m always scrambling to come up with a post.

I mean, I don’t mind if it feels like a chore.  It is a chore: I’ve set myself a goal to write every week, and it’s not always easy to do that, but pushing myself to write even when I don’t want to is part of the whole thing.  So if I was feeling pressure (only from myself, of course, but pressure nonetheless) to come up with 1,500 words every week, and it was a bit stressful, but ultimately rewarding because I was achieving that ... well, that might not be so bad.  But to be constantly feeling like I’m failing, and then to be actually failing on top of that ...

Plus there’s another issue as well, a bit more subtle.  When I first started out, I just put everything here in this blog.  Oh, sure, I labeled them all—gaming, or family, or music, or whatever—but there’s no getting around that this blog is pretty much a tumbled profusion of mismatched topics.  Anyone who might be interested in my music posts probably doesn’t care that much about my family, and may have zero interest in my ideas on business or technology.  Contrariwise, if someone thinks my posts on business are thought-provoking, how likely is it they will also dig my rambling explorations on gaming?  When I wrote my first post about Perl, I put it here.  By the time I got around to my third post about Perl, I started thinking it might make better sense to put it somewhere where Perl people might actually find it, and read it.  And thus my Other Blog was born.  Because it makes sense that different topics get different “faces,” and maybe even different locations, where they can perhaps better find their target audience.

So I’ve been pondering starting even more blogs, such as a separate blog for my music series, or a separate blog for gaming—hell, maybe even one targeted more specifically at D&D—and moving the existing posts over, and then new posts get to live in their respective homes.  On the one hand, this is not more work than I’m already currently doing, because I would never post to two differnt blogs on the same week.  I would still write one post every week, but it would just go to whatever blog happened to be the most appropriate.  It would mean that every blog would have a very infrequent posting schedule, but I’m okay with that.  But, on the other hand, it does require more work, at least at first.  I have to find someplace to put those blogs, and I have to set them up, and add some basic info about who I am, and what makes me qualified to write about the whichever-topic-this-is.  For the gaming blog, I would want to add some info about my experience with the various editions of D&D, perhaps; for the music blog, I might talk about my record-collector father and my introduction to “alternative” music, or my large collection of CDs, or whatever.  There’s a certain amount of look-and-feel that has to go into a blog as well: I personally have never spent much time worrying about that sort of thing (as I’m sure you can tell from the visuals here), but you can’t ignore it entirely.  Once all that stuff gets settled, then, sure: you don’t have to worry about it any more after that.  But you have to get to that point.  And that takes time.  And I’m already at the point now where I feel like I can’t devote any extra time to this whole writing/blogging thing at all.

So I’m going to give myself some breathing room.  I’ve made a decision that I will only make a full post (to whichever blog) once every two weeks.  My initial goal is that I will make either an interstitial post or a partial post—perhaps only a paragraph or two—in the off weeks, but I’m not making that a promise or anything.  Let’s play it by ear and see how it goes.  This will allow me to spend less time on blogging, but actually accomplish more (theoretically).  And with less pressure on myself.  And also I want to set expectations for anyone who might still be reading this, despite my best efforts to convince you that there are better things you could be doing with your time.  Because there really are.  But I thank you nonetheless for reading—I know you have many options for how to waste your time in today’s busy world, and I’m flattered that you’ve chosen me to help you fritter that time away.  So I thought it only fair to let you know that you should only come around biweekly from now on.

Hopefully this new schedule will breathe some new life into my writing, whether that’s here or in new vistas on other blogs.  As always, if I do post to other blogs, there will always be a pointer to it here.  This is my “master blog,” so to speak, and this is the place where I will always go to compile statistics and count words and get (and sometimes post) my overviews.  So, if you were inclined to want to read all my writings (and I know that’s a hell of a big “if”), you can still do so just by keeping up with this one blog.  And hopefully the extra time will allow me to explore new blogs, explore more topics, and explore the existing topics in more depth.  This could be an exciting change.

Or it could totally flop and I could end up missing even biweekly posts.  There’s really no way to know without performing the experiment.  So, here we go.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Multiclassing, Part 3: History of the Multiclasses (4th edition)

Last time, I raved on and on about how awesome multiclassing was in 3rd edition D&D (or “3e,” as it was affectionately known).  Lots of people hated it—lots of people still do, for that matter—but I loved it, and I haven’t been shy about saying so.  But then we come to 4e, and a serious bump in the road for multiclassing.

Of course, 4e was a serious bump in the road for a lot of reasons.  4e is the beginning of the “edition wars” and the impetus for the creation of Pathfinder.  And, regardless of whether you think 4e was a good game or not, there’s little argument that it’s a very different game from the other versions of D&D.  Even Pathfinder is more similar to all the other D&D editions than 4e was.

Now, as it happens, I’m not a 4e fan.  So you can feel free to throw out any criticism I have of it as being completely biased.  But let me just summarize my edition experience before you completely discount anything I have to say.  I owned 1e, but never really played it much.  When I got back into D&D in college, it was 2e, and 2e was better than 1e in every way.  Then 3e came out, and I’ve already noted how enthusiastic I was about that: 3e was better than 2e in every way too.  And then came “3.5e”: an update to 3e’s rules that were too minor to require an entirely new edition, but too major for all your old books to be any good any more.  There were many (mostly valid) criticisms of 3.5e—that it was a cash grab, that it consisted of just enough changes to spoil your rules mastery1but I never heard anyone to try to claim that it wasn’t better.  Even the things that got nerfed were arguably better for it, and again I felt that 3.5e was better in every way.  When 4e came out, I eagerly bought it.  There was just no way it wasn’t going to be better.

Except it wasn’t.  Now, don’t get me wrong: parts of it were definitely better.  The changes to the skill system were undeniably an improvement; I was excited to see warlocks and dragonborn become core, it was awesome that healing was less of pain in the ass, and even the basic concept behind at will powers vs encounter powers vs daily powers was awesome in its simplicity.  But giving every class a slate of “powers” was too much: now every class had the same bookkeeping nightmare that was formerly reserved to wizards, and your character sheet was crowded with arcane abbreviations, and the difficulty of creating custom classes was increased by an order of magnitude (or two).  The overwhelming emphasis on tactical movement and miniatures was baffling, considering how rarely we’d used miniatures in the hundreds (if not thousands) of games my friends and I had played up to that point.  It seemed that what they’d borrowed from MMORPG games like World of Warcraft was the stuff that you didn’t really want in a tabletop game: the concepts of “tanking” and “soaking” and DPS (or damage per second), and specific roles like controller and striker, and so forth.  It all combined to give me the uneasy feeling that this version of D&D, more so than any other, was not about roleplaying, but only about killing stuff.

And then I tried to find the multiclassing rules.  And there weren’t any.

That was really the last straw.  I have never played a single game of 4e, despite the fact that I bought the books almost as soon as they hit the shelves, and the lack of multiclassing is really the single defining reason for that.  I’d waited so long for decent multiclassing, and 3e gave me that, and it was so simple and so elegant ... and now it was all gone.  This, to me, was not just a step backward but a giant bounding leap.  In retrospect, I can see that it was strictly reactionary—any time things get radically better, there’s an inevitable backlash and a hard U-turn2 (hopefully a temporary one).  But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

Now, I’ve read articles that talk about multiclassing in 4e.  These articles point to the limited list of feats that simulated multiclassing.  For instance, you could gain sneak attack by taking the rogue “multiclass feat.”  But the ability to backstab alone does not make you a rogue, and calling it a “multiclass feat” does not make it multiclassing.  Simulation is not reality.  No matter how many hours you log on a flight simulator, you are not actually flying a plane.  Oh, sure: taking the backstabbing feat meant you could now qualify for rogue paragon paths, but that was a pale sop, and completely overshadowed by the fact that you could never take a second (or more) multiclassing feat.  That means that even simulating the venerable fighter/mage/thief—a multiclass combo that had been around since first editionwas now impossible.  No, my friends, there are no multiclassing rules in 4e, and dressing up a few feats and giving them a fancy group name won’t change that.

Of course, I’ve just admitted that I never even played 4e, so once again you should take that under consideration when listening (or deciding not to listen) to what I have to say about it.  But my attitude at this point aligns with something I’ve read several times now in various blog posts and online forums: 4e is not necessarily a bad game ... it’s just not really a D&D game.  If you’re into the sort of game that it is—which is much closer to a tactical miniatures game than a roleplaying game—then it’s perfectly lovely.  And, hey: tactical miniatures games is how D&D got started in the first place, so I’m sure not gonna disrespect that as a foundation.  It’s just not my thing.  I’ve already talked about what my thing is: roleplaying is storytelling.  And I’m a storyteller.3  If I want tactical miniatures, I’ll play Heroscape: it’s super quick to set up,4 requires no more than an hour or two time investment, and can be fine-tuned to a specific genre if you really want to (but I think genre-blender is so much more fun, personally).  If I want more of an investment than that—if I want a story, that is—then I want to roleplay.  I want character arcs and overarching plots with juicy subplots and big baddies with evil plans to rule the world and a small, plucky band of heroes who are the only thing standing between the current, chaotic state of the world and total annihilation, or enslavement, or both.  I want a game that will enable me—no, dammit, I want a game that will encourage me—to be whoever I want, whatever my imagination can conjure up.  Multiclassing in 3e gave me that, and 4e took it away, and I wasn’t able to forgive it for that.

But 4e is very important to this history, because it taught me to appreciate multiclassing so much more than I had been.  You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone, they say, and it’s true here as well.  I knew that I valued story over combat, sure, and there were many features of 4e that seemed to lean in the opposite direction.  But I don’t think I ever realized how truly vital to my concept of story the multiclassing rules had become.  4e taught me that multiclassing is absolutely crucial to telling the story you want to tell.  You don’t always need it, but when you do, there’s no substitute.  Making your idea flesh involves finding a way to make the rules allow your character concept to live and breathe.  The more flexible those rules are, the easier that task is.  And I guess this exposes a fundamental divide between my approach to roleplaying and that of many others: I don’t give a crap about “balance” or simplicity of character creation or not bending the rules.  All that crap goes out the window, if necessary, to serve the story.  Remember the other part of my GM philosophy: character is king.  And, in order for that to be true, you have to be able to create whatever character you want.

Next time, we’ll polish off the history portion of the series by looking at how fifth edition made a pretty decent compromise between 3e’s multiclassing rules and 4e’s lack thereof.


1 “Rules mastery” refers to how well you know the rules; in other words, how often you know the answer without having to reach for the book.  When rules change, even by a small amount, it borks your rules mastery because you can never remember which way is the old way and which way is the new way.

2 For instance, America’s last president, who was followed by this disaster.

3 I even fancy myself a struggling novelist, remember?

4 Apart from building the map, of course.  But that’s why I tend to keep a Heroscape map on my dining room table at all times.  You know: just in case.