Tuesday, February 28, 2012
I am flying twice in February, which seems insane. The first time was for pleasure - more on that when I get the photos back - and was at least flying into warmer weather. I figured that a blizzard back at home just meant I had to stay in Florida a day or two longer, which wouldn't have been a great hardship. This time I'm flying north, to Connecticut, for a memorial service, which just happens to be the two days that a winter storm hits New England. The weather forecast suggests that Connecticut will get a little snow, nothing huge, and I'm trusting that they know how to treat and clear roads. The trick is always driving on slippery roads. Perhaps the car rental company will provide me with a sign that says "Warning: Southern driver. Keep clear."
I'm not a huge fan of awards shows, and the Oscars are particularly annoying in their self-serving paeans to movies I have no interest in seeing, but they're a spectacle. I particularly enjoyed Andy Ihnatko's blog entry on the telecast.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Like the relentlessly advancing Union army, the Civil War discussion series continued this past Wednesday with its monthly meeting. The topic: Ambrose Bierce's well-known short story, "Chickamauga."
The story refers to the Battle of Chickamauga, in southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia in September 1863. The actual battle was a bloodbath for both sides - the second-highest casualty count of any Civil War battle (behind Gettysburg) - and resulted in a Confederate victory of sorts, driving the Union forces away from the battlefield, retreating to Chattanooga. Because the bulk of the army was able to escape, however, the Confederates were unable to take advantage of their victory.
Bierce's story describes a young boy, six years old, playing in the woods behind his family's farm. The child held a toy sword and waged imaginary war, unaware of the real war nearby. The child loses his way in the woods and, frightened, falls asleep. When he wakes, he encounters the retreating Union army, the wounded and dying men surely wondering how this boy appeared in their midst.
Bierce contrasts the mock war (and, even more mocking, the glorious warlike heritage of the child) with the grim realities of the real war. Seen through the child's eyes, the wounded men were playing games; seen through the narrator's eyes, the scene is a horror show. As the story nears its end, the child's "little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed," both literally and figuratively.
We had nearly a dozen attendees - an even dozen, if one includes the gentleman who materialized in our midst without a stitch of clothing and fully anatomically correct; he left when Sir JJ Drinkwater politely noted that the covenant forbade open nudity - and a good discussion, led by Sir JJ and Dame Kghia.
Sir JJ Drinkwater and Mr. Johnny Avon
Dame Kghia Gherardi and Miss Merit Coba
Miss Maria and Miss Herndon Bluebird
Mr. Jorge Serapis, looking quite dapper
Your humble scribe and Miss Jai LaSalle
Monday, February 20, 2012
On the latest episode of the B&B Podcast, Ben Brooks took issue with the promises Kickstarter campaigns make if the project is overfunded. Using the example of the Kickstarter campaign of Double Fine Adventure, Ben made two points: first, implying - or in the case of Double Fine Adventure explicitly stating - that funds in excess of the funding goal will go toward the product - may well be false, especially in the case of massively over-funded projects; second, that people's willingness to fund projects may depend on how the excess funds will be used.
Double Fine Adventure had a $400,000 goal but had received pledges of nearly $1.7 million as of Feb. 13 with nearly a month still to go. The project's FAQ says
Q: What happens if you go over the goal?
A: The extra money will be put back into the game and documentary. This could result in anything from increased VO and music budgets to additional release platforms for the game.
While it's possible that a $400,000 project could become a somewhat better $500,000 project, it's hard to imagine how the firm can use four times the original fundraising goal solely to improve the product.
Ben's related point is that some fraction of donors may be less likely to back a project in which the creators earn more money if the project is over-funded. That is, some people like the idea of crowd-sourcing but dislike the idea of profits. The combination of those two points leads Ben to conclude that the Kickstarter model is "flawed."
I'm not sure either critique shows a flaw. Certainly the Double Fine Adventure FAQ was poorly worded, likely because it never occurred to anyone that the project might be over-funded by a factor of more than four. If it had said "Some of the extra money..." or "The extra money up to $x..." there would be no issue of whether the company was somehow duping backers. As for the second critique, it's certainly possible that some backers don't think people using Kickstarter are in the business of making a profit, but I can't see how it's Kickstarter's problem that these backers are making unwarranted assumptions. I'd think the normal assumption is that individuals and firms are trying to make money on their ideas, using crowd-sourcing as a way to ensure that the project will have enough money to at least break even.
Ben's solution is to stop funding once the project reaches its goal. That's one solution, of course, but the Kickstarter projects I've backed have all involved pre-ordering a good to be delivered later (music, the New Babbage book, an iPhone charging cradle). If I see that the project is already funded but still want to buy the product, I'm no worse off being given the option of pre-ordering it through Kickstarter rather than waiting for the product to be created and ordering it at that time. (In fact, the charging cradle was being offered at a substantial discount over the projected retail price.) I don't care if some or all of my money goes to the developer's bank account; I'm happy he or she got the project funded, and I'd like my copy of the product.
I could see Ben's solution being applied by the project's originators in certain cases. Limiting the number of backers could create an incentive to invest early, so the project is funded quickly and the creators know early on that they can get on with the project. But it doesn't seem as though creating a policy to that effect would improve Kickstarter.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
"You Choose" is a clever exhibit from the minds of Ux Has and Romy Nayar, and reminds us that life is a series of choices - not all of which are pleasant.
Visitors start in a valley between two peaks and slosh their way to the robotic fellow below, named Robotitu. The information package also provides a copy of the avatar, a nice touch.
After that, one makes use of various lifts to take a circuitous path to a teleporter...
…where one is faced with a choice of paths to take. Each path requires other choices. For example, clicking on the alarm clock gives a choice of sleeping or waking. Not a tough call, right - who doesn't need an extra snooze?
Except that your dream state might not be a happy one, especially if you're trapped in a room, unable to jump your way out!
Then again, waking is no bed of roses, either, especially when you find yourself a wage slave. Is it 5:00 yet?
Other paths have other adventures. Which path will you choose?
(Via Honour McMillan.)
Thursday, February 16, 2012
I walked through Glengarry, taking my time, marveling at all the changes since my last visit. Urban renewal will be the death of us all! I encountered the base of a mountain near the border with Ahavah that surely was not there before. This caught my attention. It is one thing for new buildings to arise overnight, and a completely different thing for the land itself to erupt within a single lifespan. Then again, in the Steamlands, such a thing seems less impossible than elsewhere.
Although I was hardly dressed for strenuous activity, I began to climb - and climb and climb - until I reached the top.
There stood an enormous structure - part house, part tower - that commanded a view not only of Glengarry but of all the surrounding parts of Caledon, as far as the eye* could see.
I stood at the door for some time, hoping to find the bell so that I might ring it and wrangle an invitation inside - the night was quite cold, and a cup of tea would have gone down nicely - but I saw no bell or knocker. Instead, I saw a small brass plaque that read "Von Frankenstein Estate, Mount Glengarry." Hmm, I thought, Von Frankenstein. Where had I heard that name before?
The cold got the better of me, and I tried the door handle. The handle turned easily, and I opened the unlocked door. Very trusting people, we Caledonians.
Inside was a small laboratory, with several arcane machines. Oh, that Frankenstein, I said to myself, the brain cells finally making the right connection. Bodies, electricity, reanimated, oops. I think I spoke that last word aloud.
The time seemed right to ignore the call of tea, ignore the cold, and make a strategic retreat before the owner of the laboratory returned.
* Or draw distance, as the case may be.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Robert Brown - aka "Captain Robert" - has been at the helm of the band Abney Park for over a decade. As one of the prototypical Steampunk bands, Abney Park has released three albums (Lost Horizons, Aether Shanties, The End of Days) chronicling the band's adventures on the airship Ophelia. The songs often describe a post-apocolyptic society, filled with airship pirates, bedouins, and clockwork devices, many times with clever wordplay.
Now the good Captain has written a book, The Wrath of Fate - the title comes from an Abney Park song, naturally - that weaves together the narrative of the songs into the story of how an early 21st century band found themselves working as airship pirates in a shadowy future time. The struggling band, in a small aircraft on the way to a concert, collides with the Ophelia, which has traveled from 1903 to the present day. After receiving a message from Captain Robert's younger self admonishing him not to lead a dreary existence, the Captain decides to stay aboard the ship and travel through time, intervening in historical events to help the underdogs, first in India during Robert Clive's mission to subdue the natives, then during the Atlantic slave trade. Of course, as any reader of science fiction knows, messing with time tends to lead to unforeseen but typically unfortunate consequences. So it was with the Ophelia.
I don't want to give away too many plot spoilers, so I'll end my summary there. In any event, this is not a plot-driven book. It's a breezy read, a few hours spent with your favorite Steampunk family jumping from one adventure to the next. The book is filled with clever touches - the elites in the post-apocolyptic society are known as "Victorians," but named not after good Queen Vicky but after the totalitarian King Victor. (Captain Robert once complained on Twitter that he never understood fans writing to him in faux-Victorian language, as his band's backstory was clearly not set in the 19th century.)*
For a book that was inspired by song lyrics, the novel is remarkably cohesive. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that one theme of the novel is that interfering with time leads to unforeseen (and generally unpleasant) consequences. Another lesson - one that Star Trek's Captain Kirk had trouble remembering - is that interfering with the natural order of mankind also has unforeseen consequences. Gentlemen, there's a reason for the Prime Directive.
The book is written in a breezy style that is perfect for bedtime reading - except that I felt compelled to keep turning the pages long after I should have turned in. And if any Abney Park fans wondered what those songs were about…well, now they have one explanation.
*On a less happy note, the reader also has to contend with Captain Robert's casual attitude toward spelling. The world of self-publishing has many advantages over the traditional publishing model, but the lack of copy editors is not one of them. My suggestion for the next book: ask a Steampunk-loving, anal-retentive grammar nerd (not a null set) to do a copy edit for free. Yes, I'm volunteering.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Sometimes it's hard to figure out priorities appropriately. At other times, the choices are clear. Family and friends and keeping the lights on are on the top of the list. So is one's health.
A few months ago - I can't recall exactly when, but some time in December, I believe - I started having shoulder pain. First just at the end of the day, and I rationalized that as being tired and typing too much. Then it was with me practically all day, annoying some times and debilitating other times. Being pigheaded, I ignored it. Naturally, the pain got worse. Around Christmas, I felt better, but the pain came back the following week with a *really* annoying addition: painful neck spasms. No problem, I thought, as long as I could get a good night's sleep. Clearly, I'm a slow learner. Inevitably, the neck spasms showed up at night, too.
I was in a difficult situation, because nothing I did was comfortable. I couldn't sleep, read, sit, watch TV, type, write in longhand, or work in-world without constant reminders that I wasn't feeling well. Walking wasn't bad, or wasn't as bad, but there was a limit to how long I could keep that up.
It took me some time to understand what was going on. The neck spasms were the result of shoulder muscles that were under constant strain. In a sense, no one activity was doing me in, but rather the fact that I was not giving those muscles a rest by moving from one semi-bad activity to the next. I finally identified various factors that were causing the strain, and hence the tightness in the muscles:
- reaching for the trackball and trackpad
- too much typing - at work, at home
- looking down while working - e.g., having the MacBook on my lap and typing, or holding the iPad well below my face so I had to look down to read
- failing to take enough breaks from the keyboard to stand and stretch
- playing games on the phone, all of which required looking down at the screen.
I discovered each one of these things largely through trial and error. I made the mistake of keeping up with my normal schedule of computer work for a few weeks, making adjustments to my workstations to get the monitor at eye level, adjusting the chair to a more ergonomic position, and sitting in the chair with better posture. I took ibuprofen and applied ice to the tight spots. I began cutting back on my in-world time when I couldn't stand it any longer, cut out the games, switch sides of the trackpad, stopped, writing, began standing much of the day at work (let me assure you that htis is very tiring), essentially stopped using the laptop, and so on. I began a variety of stretching exercises for the neck and shoulders.
Eventually, I sensed an improvement. It was gradual, starting with a few good minutes here and there, with plenty of setbacks along the way. Some days were more "one step forward, two steps back" than the reverse.
This was clearly all my fault. I made each one of the bad choices, and I ignored the consequences until things became quite bad. A wiser person would have dealt with the symptoms earlier. An even wiser person wouldn't have had the problem to begin with. Live and learn.
I'm still far from 100 percent. I've kept off the games and try to limit my time in-world to under an hour at a time, with a break in the middle. I continue to stand and stretch frequently at work. (And yes, I realize how fortunate I am to have a job that allows me to do that.) I'm trying to slowly add back things I enjoy doing, and that includes continuing the adventures of a certain blonde neo-Victorian. However, if I'm in-world less, and updating this Aetheric Journal less, that's why.
This is a warning, a cautionary tale, for everyone out there. Don't sacrifice your health by ignoring your body's warning signs. Don't sit slouched in a cheap chair for hours at a time. Don't continue to reach awkwardly for the trackball, or play through the pain. Depending on your age, your body might take the abuse for a longer or shorter time, but it will eventually rebel.
Friday, February 10, 2012
The carnival has come to New Babbage! I happened to catch the performers in Wheatstone Waterways as they prepared to parade through the town.
There are human oddities and freaks...
… and midway rides and booths.
Below, the parade leaves for City Hall.
One of the freaks stayed behind. And I do believe the young lady on the left - one of Babbage's famed urchins - is consuming an alcoholic beverage. The nerve!
The Midway will remain open Friday night until 8 pm SLT and will be open 6 am to 8 pm SLT on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 11 and 12. A performance is scheduled for 6 pm Saturday and 2 pm Sunday.
Now I'm off to have my fortune told...
Our next stop on the tour of Caledon is the Duchy of Caer Firnas, due south of Kintyre and east of Greystoke.
As the Steampunk Wiki notes:
Originally discovered by ambiant Kukulcan, the island was named Caledon Glamorgan. The resources of the island were quickly tapped to make the island a hub of commercial and technological developement.
For reasons that are not completely understood, the house of Glammorgan abruptly relocated to a northern county. While records are not clear, during the tumult of this transition, the reclusive Vivito Volare and his Lady, the Dame Fogwoman Gray laid a decisive claim over the island.
The train station anchors one end of the island, with its bridge and tunnel connecting Caer Firnas to the rest of Caledon.
Although the Volares are not present as often as they once were, their touch can still be seen - for example, in the seasonal decorations that still adorned the island when I visited. The midwinter sun hung low in the sky as I took the above picture, casting the trees in an eerie light.
The other feature of note is the mountain that can be seen everywhere in the duchy. It is hollow in the center - man-made, or from volcanic activity? Knowing Duke Vivito and Caledon, either explanation is possible.
Edit 2/10/12 7:47 pm: Sadly, a little birdie tweeted that the Volares may be abandoning Caer Firnas to the wilderness, so enjoy this corner of Caledon while you can!
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Although the initial landing spot is high above ground level, the RP area is down below, accessible via the teleporter near the landing spot. Once there, an unseen narrator tells visitors:
Welcome to the Steampunk City Port Kasra! Port Kasra is set in the 1880s North American Florida Keys. Named after its orginal founder, Juan de Kasra, a pirate of great noriety, Port Kasra offers shopping with the goods and services of many fine merchants as well as a lovely Steampunk Community in which to live and play.New Residents and Merchants are warmly welcomed.The Teleportation Device Located Here at Your Arrival Point Will Make Visiting Some Of The More Interesting Sites In The Community Convient For You. We Encourage You to Take and Wear a Free HTCS Meter as it will Enhance Your Interaction & Enjoyment of Your Time In Port Kasra! We Hope You Enjoy Steampunk Southern Style!
The narrator pops up as the visitor moves to different parts of the sim. For example:
(Kasra Trolley Station) To the east, an awning shades the benches of the Kasra Trolley Station. The first leg of the trolley is already running, connecting the northern end of Kasra Island to the docklands in the south. Further track and spurs are planned by an ambitious Mayor with the backing of the City Council.
Various stores, a sheriff's office and jail, the Mayor's house, a schoolhouse, a Laboratory, the power station (pictured above), and a hotel (pictured below) provide various role-playing opportunities.
The HUD (available at the waterfront dock) provides another dimension to the sim. In addition to keeping track of various health statistics, as do other combat HUDs, this one allows the user to interact with various non-player characters and accomplish various quests. For example, I found the baker, who said:
Barry Baker says: I'm really busy and need some salt. Why don't you make yourself useful and fetch some from the salt-cave?
[[Select your reply >: Got it! --- Here's some salt (Complete Quest) >: Where? --- Where do I go to get salt? (More info) >: Going! --- Going to go get some/be right back! (Accept Quest) >: Bye --- I can't help you (Reject Quest) ]] I chose "Where"
Barry Baker says: Salt can be found in the old salt mine - it's a big pile of rocks where the ocean water dries up. Go up the little wooden bridge then inside and look for the salt
In addition to the ground-level RP area, the landing point level contains several shops with vendors of Steampunk goods and the massive Haunted Mansion. The narrator explains:
A once-lovely home built by one of Kasras first ciitizens, is now fallen into a serious state of decay. Old timers tell tales that its builder went quite mad, slaughtered his entire famiy, and then killed himself within. Bloodstains still mar the walls and floors in places throughout the house. Most of the furnishing were carried off by vandals and theives years ago, but a few sheet draped items remain. Few will venture close to the Haunted Mansion now, even during daylight hours due to the strange noises often heard from within. Locals whisper the house is haunted, cursed, unnatural things reside there, and that it is a evil place. More than a few drunks and vagrants have disappeared near the Haunted Mansion, and many stories claim those missing were last seen near its looming presence. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK IF YOU DARE!
Naturally, I dared...
…and lived to tell the tale.
Monday, February 6, 2012
Continuing east of Oxbridge Village one encounters the Duchy of Kintyre. The peninsula has had a number of owners in its history, starting with Erasmus Margulis, First Duke, Lavendar Beaumont, the Second Duchess, Autopilotpatty Poppy, the Third Duchess, and Planter and Elisabeth Leitner, the Fourth Duke and Duchess. The current Duchess, the fifth to serve in that role, is Miss True Irelund, who has radically redesigned the area. (Compare with these pictures from roughly two years ago.)
The area is lush and vibrant, even in winter, with colorful flowers everywhere.
Odd huts dot the landscape.
An enormous dragon suns himself lazily on a rock.
Meanwhile, this giant robot plays with marbles half the size of a human being.
Saturday, February 4, 2012
Adjacent to stately Oxbridge lies Oxbridge Village. The area seemed designed as a place where the students and dons in Oxbridge could relax and shop. More residential than it once was, the area is still home to a number of fine shops, including BlakOpal, M'Lady, Montagne Noire, and the Overland Trail Shop. Sadly, Thistle Hill and its shops appears to have disappeared.
The center of the area is the village square, surrounded by an iron fence.
Inside, I found Rudolph, resting from his Christmas journey!
As for refreshment, the Pub Dodo Redux is centrally located, though I must say the bartender takes more than his share of space behind the bar.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
This slender volume delivers exactly what the title promises: a collection of short stories about the city-state of New Babbage. Under the editorial direction of Assistant Maceholder A. E. Cleanslate, the volume collects 30 stories that show the diversity of interests within Babbage, from mad scientists and megalomaniacs to "what could possibly go wrong?" feats of engineering to macabre goings-on.
That the book exists at all is a tribute to both the persistence of Mr. Cleanslate, who created a Kickstarter project, and the people of the Steamlands, who know a good thing when they see it. The project was fully funded - just under the wire - last September, and I received my copy of the book just after the new year. The paperback is a high-quality printing, with bright white pages and a sturdy, shiny cover, depicting a tableau of the city from the Vernian Sea, Doctor Obolensky's observatory to the left, smokestacks belching soot into the air, and a dirigible in the distance. One hardly needed the name "New Babbage" to appear on the cover.
The book is quite good. Uneven, as story collections inevitably are, but excellent overall. I was going to say "astonishingly good," as these are tales by (mostly) amateurs (the Kickstarter page notes that "with a few exceptions" the authors are not professional writers), but in some regards it is not at all surprising that a role-playing area with such a firm sense of place is also populated by talented writers, even if those writers make their livings some other way. The backstories, ongoing tales, and shared role-play all suggest a populace that knows and loves stories.
Some personal highlights:
- "Mr. Marvin and the Monocipede of Mayhem," by Sarah Heiner, about Miss Bookworm Hienrichs and her encounter with a newcomer to Babbage, bent on world domination in a contraption of his own design
- "The Trains Don't Run Under Clockhaven," by A.E. Cleanslate, a truly creepy Lovecraftian tale about what happens when Progress attempts to go where it ought not
- The amusing "A Tale of New Babbage," by DreddPirateBob…even urchins can dream big
- Two humorous tales by Emerson Lighthouse about his encounters with Petharic, the Lieutenant Gerard to Lighthouse's Richard Kimble
- "The Card Game," by Jonathon Spires, a lengthy piece of intrigue and double-dealing involving the Church of the Builder, the Militia, and a third group with its own agenda
- "The Hummingbird and the Diamond Cog," by Junie Ginsburg, about the consequences of technology and obsessions
- "The Sulphurstick Girl," by Darian Mason, which provides a new twist on a classic tale
- The humorous "The Outer Circle, Or 'How I Got Kicked Out of the B.R.T.R.C.C.A.,'" by Arconus Arkright, about a secret organization and the consequences of not paying enough attention to events around one's self.
This list is not to slight the other tales. Some are very brief, mere snippets about the lives of New Babbagers. Many, including some of those described above, make good use of humor, acknowledging the over-the-top nature of the a city filled with resourceful urchins, crazy inventors, monstrous beasts, and menacing villains. A sense of humor is vital to survival.
The book closes with a poem, "Twas the Night Before a New Babbage Christmas," by Salazar Jack, which rewrites the classic Christmas poem to something more appropriate for a land of airships, urchins, smog-filled streets, and killer trolleys. I can only think that Clement Moore would have approved.
The "Vol. 1" of the title provides hope that we will see a "Vol. 2" and beyond in this series. One thing that surprised me about this book was that it contains relatively little of the ongoing characters in the city. Perhaps we'll see more of that in future volumes.
Cheers to all the participants of the projects. If one day the Dark Aether does indeed fall and New Babbage vanishes forever, this volume will be evidence of a vibrant city-state and the creativity of her citizens.