Thursday, December 31, 2009

Stephen King's Under the Dome

I am currently reading Stephen King's latest book, Under the Dome. I'm about two or three hundred pages into this 1100+ page book. Normally one would expect a book review only after completion of a book, but I feel like writing one now. Part of the reason for that is I'm really enjoying the book and when I'm really enjoying a book, deep in the midst of it, that is when the enjoyment is best. An ending, even a really good one, means the story ends. I want this one to continue.

In a way, it reminds me of his earlier book The Stand - not because there are any similarities in story - I don't think there are - but because it is a community survival situation, and I find such situations fascinating. What happens when normal society is destroyed and how do people deal with it? I must admit I didn't think the ending of The Stand was that great, though it was ok. But despite that, it is still one of my favorite books - maybe in part because it is so long, you can be immersed in the world and the characters for many hours, allowing much time to savor it all. Under the Dome seems poised to give me a similar immersion experience. I write about it now because I'm in the moment of that experience.

The basic premise of Under the Dome is simple - a small town is suddenly, and without explanation, encased in what is essentially a dome-shaped force field that cuts it completely off from the outside world. Maybe there will be an explanation later - though I'm hoping there really isn't one - some mysteries are best left unexplained - your imagination will generally trump anything a writer can come up with. There are exceptions to this - Lost, the ultimate TV mystery show, has explained much and it has done so in a very interesting, sometimes twisted way, that is enjoyable in its own right. (As an aside, Stephen King is a big fan of Lost). But back to the Dome...

Once things are cut off, you get small town life with a massive twist. You see how things start to break down, how people deal with it, and it is almost like you are watching a somewhat twisted social science experiment, one with very interesting characters.

I won't spoil anything in the book - I recommend it highly, if you like this sort of tale. I actually haven't read much of King's work - just The Stand, The Dark Tower Series (also excellent), and maybe one or two other books. I also read his book on writing called, appropriately enough, On Writing, and found it excellent. I aspire to be a writer someday - maybe I'll eventually get around to it. I suppose getting back to writing on this blog is a start. I have been away too long - I miss writing. It seems like a chore, but now that I'm back doing it, I find I have a lot to say and I've already written more posts in a day than I have in months. Practice practice practice. That's what makes for a good writer. (Amongst other things).

And so I have resumed my regular schedule - at least one post a day on a list of regular topics (see my post about my regular blogging schedule for the topics - today, for instance, is entertainment, so I'm writing about a book). Beyond that, I'll write on other topics that suit my fancy, whenever I feel like it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I love Paizo's Pathfinder Rules

Several months ago, at Gen Con, Paizo came out with it's Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Put simply, this is like 3.75 Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. They did a rules overhaul that still keeps the heart and soul of what 3.5E is, and is very easily compatible with 3.5E.

I have now had the chance to read the rules (including some sections several times) and I am in the process of creating my very first Pathfinder character for my very first Pathfinder game.

One of the players in the Monday evening game I run out of my house will be running a new Pathfinder campaign. He will be apparently doing some sort of homebrew - the details will be forthcoming. It will be the first time I've not run on Mondays, which will be a nice break. I don't generally run on the Friday game I play out of town (about an hour away).

We will probably do a 25 point buy, which I think is about equivalent to 32 point for 3.5E. With it you can get some decent stats, but nothing ridiculous, though they call it epic or heroic, I really don't see how it is much fun to play with totally average stats. (But that is a subject for another post).

Each of the base classes in Pathfinder have gotten a little boost - nothing much - but enough to give a little something at every level, and enough so that there is plenty of variation possible even staying just with one base class up to level 20. Of course, 3.5E had that too, in the sense that it was very viable to just stick to one class, but there were many prestige classes that allowed you to do just about any character concept better. There is less need for that in Pathfinder, which is a good thing.

I like some of the little tweaks - the Fighter stands out to me. Fighters get better with armor, so they can have higher dex bonuses even with the heavier armor as they level. They also get save bonuses versus fear - that has always been a problem with fighters. They don't have good Will Saves generally, and so where there are fear effects, the tough front-line fighters all run away, leaving the weakling wizards behind. That really doesn't make much sense - fighters need to be able to control fear to be on the front lines, so save bonuses for fear was a really nice touch.

The variants for wizards and sorcerers are also nice, with bloodlines giving a speciality for sorcerers and with specialty wizards getting new goodies as well. But I don't really want to get into all of the details on that. Suffice it to say, there is rich new content to provide all sorts of interesting variations on old themes (and entirely new themes as well) and I really love the rules.

It feels like D&D is alive again - 4th Edition for a while felt like the game was dead, in the sense that there would be nothing new on the horizon for my game. But now there is Pathfinder and Paizo and the game lives. I am very much looking forward to the other Pathfinder material that is in the pipeline. I will write more about how it plays once I've gotten into the new game. (The new game will alternate at appropriate stopping points with the 3.5E "Rise of the Runelords" game that I'm running - that one is into volume 5 now, so they are approaching the end!)

Thank you Paizo!

Non-use of Given Names

I have a pet peeve about parents who name kids one thing and then never actually use the name. It is one thing for someone later in life to aquire a certain nickname that is used some of the time. That is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the parents who give a kid a first name and a middle name and then never use the first name or the middle name. Almost as bad are those parents who give a first and middle name and then use the middle name only from birth.

Why the hell bother giving a kid a name you never have any intention of using? If you are going to call a kid "Mack" from birth, write that on his birth certificate so everyone can see what his name is! If you are going to use a kid's middle name from birth as if it were a first name, why the hell don't you just make it the kid's first name to begin with?

And while I'm ranting about names, I also want to rant about people who recycle names in families, naming kids after grandparents, or even parents, so you get lots of juniors or just get the same names repeated over and over and over. Every child deserves his or her OWN name, not some recycled name. That is just so... boring - and also confusing when you look at a family tree.

So please - pick an original name for your child - but hopefully not something that makes the kid sound like a freak - and when you choose the name - use it! Thus ends my rant for this evening.

Russia to Set up Asteroid Defense Mission

I just read that Russia is developing a spacecraft to deflect the Apophis asteroid from a possible collision with Earth in the coming decades. (Fans of Stargate SG:1 might also recognize the alternate threat that a different Apophis may represent...)

I think this is cool, though it is also sad that it took backwards Russia to first start doing something about this threat. The chances of the asteroid hitting may be only 1 in 30,000 or even less, but even a 1 in 30,000 chance to have life wiped out on Earth (at least our life) seems rather too high to me. Far less likely threats seem to cause action - like fear of terrorist attacks. Like the recent failed attempt to blow up a plane in Detroit (of some interest to me since the Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit is one often used by my family) - this attack has caused all sorts of overreactions, as is typical. There are tens of thousands of flights every day, and one happens on one day out of the whole year and people go crazy.

The additional security measures announced were enough to make me vow never to fly again.

But back to the Asteroid. This is a real threat, something that can wipe out life on Earth - maybe not every cell, but certainly all of us. If not this asteroid, than some other, perhaps one we have not yet detected. Despite this, we are doing nothing - we don't even have a comprehensive program to map all of the NEA (Near Earth Asteroids). It would cost a pittance, but Congress apparently has other priorities - like lining the pockets of Congress and the powerful people they represent. Maybe they figure they'll all be dead and it won't matter, or maybe they are too fat with cash and short-sighted to care. You'd think they'd want to at least protect their legacies - it is hard to have one when the Earth is a burnt-out cinder. At least with the right-wing religious wackos, they have a reason not to build such a defense system - they all WANT the world to end. So either the powers that be are all right-wing religious wackos or they are just stupid. Except they aren't stupid. So I wonder what the problem is. Any suggestions anyone?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Television, Baby Einstein and Parenting

If you're not a parent, you may not have heard of it - Baby Einstein. They make videos of puppets and drawing and animals and other simply visual things, all set to classical music. The idea is that it will somehow stimulate a baby's mind and make the baby into a genius, a "baby Einstein." This probably grew out of the general notion some people had that just playing classical music for a baby, starting in utero, somehow would enhance intelligence.

I'm sure some parents believe this. I'm sure some used to do so and are disappointed when it didn't work. I have several of the DVDs. I could make the disclaimer that my wife bought them, but I didn't exactly try and stop her. I did tell her that any "enhancement" was nonsense. I don't think she really thought otherwise. One thing that the videos are good for is occupying a baby, particularly when that baby is eating. They are good "baby entertainment." But I doubt they have any positive effects. I've heard it is bad for a baby to watch TV at all. But for good or ill, both of my children watch TV. I suppose I might as well be used to it. I watch TV - I'd be some kind of huge hypocrite if I stopped them from doing so.

Maybe I can steer them toward quality shows - like Battlestar Galactica, or The Wire - or other greats. I think that's probably what would disappoint me more than anything - not that they watch too much TV, but that they watch crappy TV. One could hardly fault anyone for sitting down and watching a Battlestar Galactica marathon - but a Two and a Half Men marathon? I may need therapy.

My daughter watched baby Einstein - then Little Einsteins (on Disney Channel), and on to other Disney shows. She likes them. But now, due to the wonder of on-demand TV, she can watch reruns of ancient cartoons - Tom and Jerry - a cartoon from the 1940s and 1950s. A cartoon I grew up on. I still remember so many of them. She now watches them over and over and loves them. My son loves them, too. He laughs so hard when that poor cat gets beat up by that little mouse. Which reminds me of what annoyed me about that cartoon. The poor cat never gets a break. The mouse always gets the better of him. And it isn't just about the strong being beaten by the weak - because whenever there is a dog on the show, the stronger dog also beats up the cat. So pretty much it is all about abusing poor Tom. Just once I'd like to see it end with Jerry losing and Tom in triumph. Maybe there was such a cartoon, but I don't remember it (and haven't seen it in those on demand).

My daughter is now a sophisticated TV watcher. Thankfully, one thing she hardly sees is commercials - between DVDs, and watching stuff on channels like Disney, there are few opportunities for the ad agencies to get their claws into her. It is funny that when she does see commercials, she says "I want that" to ALL of them - she said it to a car tire commercial - I had to laugh at that. She says it, but doesn't actually press the issue - I wonder if she is even serious about it. Maybe she hasn't figured out how we can get stuff for her yet. Then again, maybe growing up with sophisticated commercials will help her build immunity to them. It certainly will take a lot to impress her. At least I hope that is the case.

Talking about TV now makes me think of horror movies, and my daughter's enjoyment of those. More on that later.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fascinating Account of Life in Ann Arbor Jail

This is an ongoing account of what life was like for a man who was in the Washtenaw County Jail in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For those that don't know it, Ann Arbor is an extremely liberal town (and is where I am originally from, though I don't live there now). It got me thinking that if this is the sort of treatment you get in a liberal jail, just how horrible must it be in the facilities run by the sadistic right-wing. Then again, given what happened with the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, maybe the liberalness of the community is irrelevant.

I look forward to future chapters.