Archive for the 'Miscellaneous' Category

Hello, again.

Sep 19 2017 Published by under Miscellaneous

'a White Room' by Richard Schatzberger on Flickr

‘a White Room’ by Richard Schatzberger on Flickr

My, this place is dusty.

I’ve been gone from this site for over three years now. Much has changed since then, personally and globally. I’ve moved houses, switched employers, abandoned a couple of hobbies, and taken up a couple of new ones.

Three years ago, I felt like I didn’t need a personal blog. Social media didn’t quite replace blogging, but it made blogging less relevant. I didn’t need to post occasional thoughts here; I could get a lot more conversation out of a post on Google+ or Twitter. And, granted, that’s where the conversation still takes place.

Well, now I’m pursuing new things, and this place should serve as a welcome repository for my thoughts. Blogging serves as a useful tool in that way, I think. I don’t write essays on other media; I can here.

I plan to write about minimalism, drawing, and creativity, and write an occasional movie or book review.

Let’s do this.

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Japan, Day 1: Arrival

Nov 11 2013 Published by under Miscellaneous

This was the beginning of my ten-day trip to Japan. I had planned to travel with a friend who’d been to Japan before, but his availability evaporated about a month ahead of time.

So I went alone. No tour guide, no backup. Just me, my wallet, and a small suitcase of clothes.

I had two flights to Japan: one to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and another to Narita. The flight to LAX was perfectly, blissfully uneventful. I worried about finding my gate at the huge LAX with only an hour between flights. We landed, I disembarked the plane, and stared directly at the gate for the Narita flight. It was directly opposite; literally twenty feet from one waiting area to another.

The gate was filled with non-Japanese Asians. I assume Japan is the cheapest hub between California and, say, Singapore or Seoul.

So I waited for an hour, watching a bleary-eyed man order two cups of coffee, and promptly spill one all over his jeans.

DreamlinerWe then proceeded to board a 787 Dreamliner to Japan. It was a beautiful plane: roomy and comfortable, even in coach. They even gave each passenger a commemorative pack of playing cards.

It’s a 13-hour flight from LAX to Narita. I slept fitfully, despite mild turbulence, and eventually gave up and flipped through the movie options. Thankfully, they had a wide variety of foreign films, all subtitled in English. I ended up watching a legitimately spooky Bollywood horror movie, Ek Thi Daayan, about Indian witches. Had a neat twist ending, too.

One advantage of a $1,500 plane ticket: the flight attendants fed us well, with mediocre but filling meals and snacks.

The plane touched down in Japan. I looked out the window eagerly, and I saw…an airport. Just like any other airport. I slumped back in my seat. I wanted this to be alien. I would have to wait.

I exited and looked around for two important things: an ATM and the Japan Rail desk. I needed the first so I could withdraw some yen for meals and such, and I needed the last for my Japan Rail Pass.

Quick spiel about the JR Pass, for those unfamiliar: Japan’s invested heavily in train infrastructure. The JR Pass gives you 7, 14, or 21 days of access to almost every rail line in Japan, including intra-city lines. However, to buy a JR Pass, you must purchase a voucher before your trip, receive it at home, take it with you to Japan, and trade it in for your actual JR Pass at a Japan Rail desk.

Narita Airport was full of Japanese, and lots of English. Every sign had English equivalents. So I headed through immigration–easy enough, despite the lone person processing non-Japanese visitors–and tried to find an ATM.

Fortunately, once I made it to the main concourse, I saw an ATM sign, and followed it to a couple of ATM machines. And sure enough, each one had an English button. Within a few minutes, I had 20,000 yen (about US$200) in my pocket, and I was looking around for the Japan Rail desk.

That was easy to find, too. I was beginning to feel that Japan was going to be easy. How wrong I was.

Getting the JR Pass was straightforward, though I had to stand in line for about 15 minutes to do so. Even so, as I approached the desk, a young woman in a uniform approached me and asked–in English!–if I was there for a JR Pass. I said, “yes,” and she guided me to the short form I needed to fill out.

At the desk, I got my JR Pass, and the clerk asked, “Where is your hotel?” I explained that I was staying in Tokyo, specifically Asakusa, and she asked me to wait for a moment. She printed out a train ticket for me, then pulled out a map and showed me the best route to Asakusa, which included two train lines and a subway ride. I later learned that this ticket was a special reserved seat on the super-express to Tokyo. She could have just let me take a regular train, which doesn’t require a ticket. How nice of her!

Following the English signs, I made my way to the train station, boarded the train, went to my seat…and it was occupied. I blinked, sat down next to the occupant, and looked at my ticket. I had arrived early, and I was on the previous train! Fortunately, the next stop was the other side of the terminal a few minutes away, so I hopped off and waited for my train.

As I waited, I looked around. About half a dozen people stood on this platform, waiting for the train. They were all Japanese. Zero ethnic diversity.

My train came, I hopped on board, and I settled in for a 1-hour train ride to Tokyo.

Rice paddies in JapanThe train zipped through tunnels for a few minutes, then exited to the outside…and suddenly I was in Japan. Rice paddies, dense forests, and quaint little villages surrounded the train as it hurtled towards the metropolis. I felt alone and a little homesick. I was in an alien world.

The train arrived in Tokyo station, at which point I had to switch to another line. Again, everything was in English, so while I spent half an hour trying to find the right sign and the right line, at least I never got really lost.

I hopped on the Yamanote Line north to Ueno, which was only 4 stops away. The train passed through Akihabara, a fact which I filed away for later. Upon arriving in Ueno, I had to find the subway line to Asakusa. The subways require their own ticket (not covered by the JR Pass), but fortunately, the ticket machines all have English instructions, too.

I finally found myself at Asakusa Station. I wasn’t sure exactly how to get to my hotel from there, so I followed the signs for the Information Desk. Either I followed them incorrectly or they were poorly posted, because I followed them right up a staircase, out an exit, to the streets of Tokyo.

And I was on an alien planet.

It’s hard to describe just how different Japan is. I’ve visited Bermuda, Ireland, England, and South Africa. They’re all different than America. This was wildly different. There was no English anywhere. Even the iconography is different.

I turned 180 degrees and descended back into the station, found a clerk, and asked (in Japanese) where I could find my hotel. He said “Ah,” grabbed a paper map, and showed me, using some basic English.

I took a breath, re-ascended the stairs, and made my way to my hotel. A few blocks away, I found it. My heart swelled, I entered, and I found myself in a familiar environment: front desk, smiling staff, tiny restaurant off to one side; the works. I introduced myself, in English–I had deliberately chosen hotels where the staff could speak English–and soon had my room key. A few minutes later, I stepped into my room.

First hotel roomThis was a Japanese-style double room, which meant that it was barely wider than the double bed. But it was mine for 4 nights. I settled in and collapsed onto the bed.

I was in Japan.

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Normal Blogging

Sep 23 2013 Published by under Miscellaneous

A little social media navel-gazing: I’m sick today, and in that frustrating middle on a bunch of projects.  Not that I have the energy to work on them, but at least I can stare, bleary-eyed, at my list of Projects between bathroom runs.

(And I do mean runs.)

I have a 40-page setting guide that I’ll release when my season 3 of the Monsters of the Shattered World podcast gets out of the editing stage, but it looks like that won’t happen before I leave for Japan next week. The guide itself is done except for adding the art and checking the document for layout issues, correct links, and the other half-dozen things that I always think will be quick but end up consuming hours.

I have a handful of tabletop games in various of playtesting or design. None of them are ready for release yet. Two are board games, several are role-playing games, and all of them I know just don’t work cleanly yet.

I’m watching various anime series this season (the silly and poignant WATATOME, the beautiful and unusual The Eccentric Family), none of which have wrapped yet.

And I really don’t want to start anything new. Heck, I’m already starting to feel some background anxiety about my trip to Japan.

I want to be making stuff. Which is silly, because I find it easy to make stuff. But when I look at any of these projects, they look like giant walls to climb. I’m stuck.

So. Time to make some macaroni and cheese and either read a book or make something, anything.

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Fish and Chips, Middletown MD

Jul 06 2013 Published by under Miscellaneous

20130706-113727.jpg

One advantage of being the only customer at a restaurant: my lunch came out in about 5 minutes.

Today, I’m wandering around Middletown, Maryland. It’s one of many Middletowns, this one nestled between two ridges. An important rest stop in the steady river of trade between Baltimore and the west during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it slid back into a sleepy backwater town as larger highways arose in the last hundred years.

Unfortunately, according to today’s experience, it now houses retirees that stand on their porches, staring sourly at passers-by. The Town Hall building stands derelict, weeds grown 2 feet high through the concrete. Of the 2 restaurants in town, 1 is closed.

So there’s not much to do here. A beautiful little garden squats in the shadow of the big church in town. The main street corner includes a curio shop, an old church converted into a jam space (“COME IN; OPEN MIC”), and a spa.

The one restaurant, fortunately, serves huge portions cooked perfectly. The fish above fell apart when I touched it, and the fries were crisp but not dry, bursting with salty potato flavor.

And then my server brought out a sweet cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries:

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That was worth the trip.

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I finally get BattleTech

Jun 17 2013 Published by under Miscellaneous

BattleTech

BattleTech © Catalyst Games Labs

I remember standing in a hobby store with my older brother. He was probably there to buy more Car Wars material. I had been wandering the dusty aisles, past ziplock bags of dice and rules printed on dot-matrix printers. I reached up to a shelf and pulled down a book covered with giant robots. It was a BattleTech manual. (I think it was one of the early, unauthorized Robotech supplements, thus proving that anime was in my blood.)

I opened this book and began to read. My mind spun, trying to comprehend dozens of pages packed with tables and numbers. I put it back on the shelf, cowed and intimidated by this game.

I kept that impression for twenty years.

Fast forward to PAX East 2013. I was walking into the tabletop area with a few friends at the beginning of the first day. My eyes fell on a table covered with hex grids, small mountains, and little toy train trees. And little plastic mecha models. Laying in a heap on a corner of the table: a few pamphlets emblazoned with a BattleTech logo.

Like a young child, I pointed and yelled, “BattleTech!”

My friends blinked at me, and I turned to them and said, “I wanna play this.” Excitement must have crept into my voice, because a few agreed to play with me.

I sat down, and a friendly guy walked over and offered to teach us how to play a basic game.

I loved it. More importantly, I understood it.

This undoubtedly is due at least in part to our guide’s clear explanations. He knew exactly what to explain and when to explain it. He gave us just enough choices to keep us interested, and as we got ourselves into dangerous situations, he’d explain the rules that governed that. Then as we got a hang of the game, he backed off.

I won’t try to explain the rules here, because I think a textual explanation just won’t do the game justice. Check out the Quick-Start Rules. Broadly: you calculate the defender’s to-hit number, which is 4 plus modifiers based on cover, damage to the mech’s systems, etc. For each attacking weapon, the attacker rolls 2d6, adds them together, and hits if the result is equal to or greater than the to-hit number. Damage is specified by the weapon, and is usually a static number. You also roll 2d6 to determine where you hit the enemy; each part of a mech has its own amount of armor.

One thing I love about the game is the relative fragility of mechs. A mech degrades quickly but can stay in a fight for a surprisingly long time. The game is a matter of managing failure, doing your best to stay in the game with a rapidly deteriorating mecha.

And because of the world’s fiction–innumerable fights across hundreds of worlds–I didn’t get too caught up in the outcome of that one battle. You do your best, but this is war: you’ll lose a good number of battles.

Overall, I can’t wait to play again.

You can download the Quick-Start Rules for free.

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My dream house

Apr 01 2013 Published by under Miscellaneous

'Victorian House' by roarofthefour on Flickr

‘Victorian House’ by roarofthefour on Flickr

Last night, I dreamt of my house.

When I dream, I frequently find myself living in this particular house. It’s a two-story Victorian with pale yellow siding.

I live on the first floor, with its living room and kitchen and bedrooms in the back, and I barely ever think of the second floor. In the dream, I need something or want something on the second floor, or I have to escape from something horrible downstairs, so I go up.

The upstairs is lovely: large rooms, nicely furnished with couches and chairs. It’s messy, but that’s okay. I search through a sitting room, a side bedroom I’ve converted into storage, and I think a few other rooms.

I never find what I’m looking for.

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Now I Know the Meaning of Slitches

Feb 11 2013 Published by under Miscellaneous

My co-worker Tim and I stepped into the American restaurant on the corner. The bleary-eyed maitre’d pointed us towards a table near the front, part of a trio enclosed by glass on three sides.

One of the other tables was empty. The third hosted four women, all in their late 20’s, who wore name brands and talked louder than absolutely necessary. Tim and I sat, our server took our drink order, and the woman at the far end said, “Hey!”

'some of the girls' by arrogant on Flickr

‘some of the girls’ by arrogant on Flickr

We turned.

“Don’t order the steak,” she said. Her friends tittered.

I looked at our new friend closely. She was having trouble keeping both eyes open and focused. Tim gave the best possible answer.

“Oh?”

She put up two fingers about a quarter-inch apart. “It was like this.” The others murmured their agreement.

We duly thanked them for their advice, then returned to our conversation. The four women started to talk about when they were next going to meet. This took fifteen minutes.

Then I heard a hiss. Tim and I turned. Our new friend had poised a paper airplane in one hand and eyed us mischievously, like she was about to perform a grand prank. She pulled back her hand and let fly, and the poor papercraft didn’t get more than two feet before crashing to the table. It was then passed to the nearest woman to our table–whose shoulder practically touched mine–who attempted again. It was just as successful.

I picked it up, thanked them, and glanced down at the airplane. Half a line of writing peeked out from behind the folds. I unfolded the paper to find this:

DON’T EAT THE STEAK

SLITCHES 4 EVER

I arched an eyebrow. Tim had the daring–and English self-effacement–to ask the women what on Earth a “slitch” is. For the record, I had no idea, either. They tittered, hemmed, and hawed. Finally, they relented: It means “slut bitch.”

What do you say to that?

I turned back around, making a show of laughing as if this was all a merry batch of teasing among sophisticated adults. Tim and I returned to our dinner (neither of them steaks), at which point my ears turned into spies and eavesdropped. The women were now talking about all the cheating wives and girlfriends they knew, and how they found out about their husbands having affairs. Then our new friend–the one with poor eyelid control–whined, “I have to go back home and get my girls in bed,” stood up…and walked over to us.

The resulting conversation was, to my surprise, completely civil: what brought us to this town? What have we had a chance to see? Had we been to Atkins Park? There was no apparent secret agenda or coded invitations, and I later checked on her suggestions: solid, nice places to go. And then, she was gone.

At least now I know the meaning of “slitches.”

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The Best of Margaret St. Clair

Dec 17 2012 Published by under Miscellaneous

The Best of Margaret St. Clair cover

The Best of Margaret St. Clair cover

I have no idea when or why I bought The Best of Margaret St. Clair (public library). It sat on the bottom of my to-read pile as it grew to skyscraper heights. By the time I got around to reading it, it was an orphan.

As it happens, Margaret St. Clair was a science fiction writer of the mid-twentieth century, a feminist and rough equivalent to Marion Zimmer Bradley.

This book collects a handful of her short stories, all of which provoked total concentration and shortness of breath. After finishing a story, I’d feel compelled to put the book down and think about the story.

She was a woman in a man’s field, writing about men. She wrote about women, too, but it’s her deftness with men that fascinated me most. Her men feel real, motivated by men’s forces: duty, honor, respectability. Her women, ironically, felt simpler.

The stories range from adventure to horror to cerebral science fiction.

As hard as I find it to recommend anything, I have most trouble with short story collections. They cover such a wide range of tones and themes. Perhaps that is the joy of a collection: you won’t like every story, but you’ll probably like one.

I liked them all.

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Center for Puppetry Arts

Dec 03 2012 Published by under Miscellaneous

A few weeks ago, I happened to have a free day in Atlanta. I drove up to Peachtree Street–the main one, not the hundred other ones scattered around Atlanta–and fired up my iPhone. I looked for interesting locations nearby.

My eye fell on a dot labelled “Center for Puppetry Arts.” One long walk later, I pushed open the double doors, walked over to a ticket booth, and bought a ticket to a unique museum.

As a kid, I loved the Muppets as much as anyone, and felt my mind blown by The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. But at some point during my early teen years, I grew more interested in how puppets work. I remember watching with hunger a behind-the-scenes clip on the complex Viking “In the Navy” sequence from The Muppet Show, seeing how they rigged the ship and positioned the puppets to achieve specific visuals.

Then I started using a puppet on my YouTube reviews, to my viewer’s surprise and delight. Folks loved it. People respond to puppets.

But enough about me. The Center is a large facility, also including a full-scale theater, while the museum itself is relatively small. The museum consists of three main areas: one big section devoted to puppets on TV (mostly the Muppets), another smaller room devoted entirely to The Muppets and Jim Henson, and a small warren of rooms displaying puppets from around the world.

The Muppet areas had the most immediate appeal. We all grew up with these characters. Besides describing several major puppet TV shows, the museum had examples of the puppets themselves: Big Bird from Sesame Street, Red and Mokey from Fraggle Rock, Sir Didymus from Labyrinth, and even Kermit the Frog. Sadly, the lettering accompanying these treasures, while expansive and helpful, was often faded or missing many letters.

As interesting as this was–Jim Henson built a vast body of work–the puppets from the rest of the world most intrigued me.

I entered that section of the museum through a heavy door, into an empty room. From there, I entered a closet crammed full of puppets. Several of these puppets were controlled by motion-sensitive sensors, so that moving through the room triggered them to turn towards me and chatter. It was one of the creepiest experiences of my life.

Beyond this was a more traditional museum space, wandering through displays of puppets from the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It seems that every country has developed a distinct puppetry tradition.

Did you know Vietnam has a tradition of intricate puppet shows…performed entirely in pools of water?

Mind-blowing.

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The Black Hole

Jul 05 2012 Published by under Miscellaneous

A frustrating day at work. I discovered that a hotel over-charged me for an upcoming trip, because I wasn’t paying attention. I felt despair upon realizing that. Silly, but true. I knew I’d have to call and explain and try to work it out. I felt like a child.

Travel arrangements frequently bring out a feeling of helplessness in me. I feel overwhelmed, even though I have few things to do. I worry that I’ll completely foul it up. I worry that I’ll end up stranded in a foreign city, with no options.

Tomorrow, I have to call the hotel and work this out, dreading every minute of it. Blah.

So I came home and watched some light anime, starting with two episodes of Kids on the Slope. This is the latest series by the director and composer behind the legendary Cowboy Bebop. When I heard it was about teenagers playing jazz together, I was curious. When I watched and discovered it’s a story about growing-up set in 1966 Japan, I was intrigued. Then a piece of Yoko Kanno jazz music hit, and I felt it in my gut. I had so missed that.

Then, three episodes of the original Dirty Pair OVA: girls in metal bikinis, wielding laser guns and causing massive property damage as they pursue criminals. Absolute fun fluff, drawn with care in the inimitable 1980’s anime style. A perfect diversion.

Meanwhile, I continue attempting to keep up with game registrations for Indie+, an online tabletop gaming convention that starts Monday. We’ve established too many beachheads for information, and keeping them all in sync has been a headache. The good news: We have quite a few games scheduled.

Finally, I took a few minutes to cull through the photos I took in the past month. I present them here as a slideshow:


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

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