Archive for the ‘Geekery & Nerdaphernalia’ Category

D&D Returns

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

So, by many accounts, the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, released a few years ago, was kind of a stinker. Players have been eagerly awaiting the new Fifth edition, and that prize is now being released, in increments.

So far they’ve released a “Starter Set” that includes a short rulebook, a (surprisingly meaty) adventure, some pre-gen characters, and dice. The Player’s Handbook is coming out in August, and the remainder of the “big three” rulebooks will follow in the coming months.

What’s most interesting to me is that you can download, absolutely free, a substantially longer version of the basic rulebook. Unlike the Starter Set rulebook, this one includes rules for actually creating characters, and a lot more rules in general. I haven’t played D&D in years (decades!), but my nephew is interested in it, so I promised him I would run an adventure for him. I bought the Basic Set, so I figured I’d run him through the beginning of the included adventure — show him how it’s done — and then give him the set.

I’ve notices that the downloadable file has a few issues. Some things are pure formatting — the page numbers are on the wrong sides of the page, for example (even numbers on the right, odd numbers on the left — contrary to virtually every book published in the last century). But there are times when it seems that the authors are so close to the game that they don’t recognize when they’ve failed to actually explain how something works.

A good example is the section on saving throws: It tells you to roll a d20, and it talks about how the roll might be modified by circumstances or stats. And… that’s all it says. What do I compare the roll to? It doesn’t actually say. I’ve noted a couple other places where they’ve done similar — explaining how something works as though they assume you already know how it works.

This is probably no problem for long-time players, but it’s a problem for anybody who picks up that book as a new player and tries to learn from it. Now, this is listed as “version 0.1”, so hopefully the final books will be better proofed; but I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I’m sure I can figure things out, but I shouldn’t have to — that’s what the rule book is for!

At any rate, I hope the new edition is good. My nephew is excited to play, and I can remember how much I loved the game — especially when it was all fresh for me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go slay some orcs.

On E-Readers and the Future of the Baen Free Library

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

For years now there has existed a part of the Baen Books web site called the Baen Free Library. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a site where Baen books gives away many of their books for free in electronic format. No strings attached, no sign up, just download and enjoy. Created by author Eric Flint, it was, and is, a bold experiment in publishing, begun at the height of the use of DRM within the music industry.

Here is (part of) Eric’s story as to the founding of the Free Library:

This all started as a byproduct of an online “virtual brawl” I got into with a number of people, some of them professional SF authors, over the issue of online piracy of copyrighted works and what to do about it.

There was a school of thought, which seemed to be picking up steam, that the way to handle the problem was with handcuffs and brass knucks. Enforcement! Regulation! New regulations! Tighter regulations! All out for the campaign against piracy! No quarter! Build more prisons! Harsher sentences!

Alles in ordnung!

I, ah, disagreed. Rather vociferously and belligerently, in fact. And I can be a vociferous and belligerent fellow. My own opinion, summarized briefly, is as follows:

1. Online piracy ? while it is definitely illegal and immoral ? is, as a practical problem, nothing more than (at most) a nuisance. We’re talking brats stealing chewing gum, here, not the Barbary Pirates.

2. Losses any author suffers from piracy are almost certainly offset by the additional publicity which, in practice, any kind of free copies of a book usually engender. Whatever the moral difference, which certainly exists, the practical effect of online piracy is no different from that of any existing method by which readers may obtain books for free or at reduced cost: public libraries, friends borrowing and loaning each other books, used book stores, promotional copies, etc.

3. Any cure which relies on tighter regulation of the market ? especially the kind of extreme measures being advocated by some people ? is far worse than the disease. As a widespread phenomenon rather than a nuisance, piracy occurs when artificial restrictions in the market jack up prices beyond what people think are reasonable. The “regulation-enforcement-more regulation” strategy is a bottomless pit which continually recreates (on a larger scale) the problem it supposedly solves. And that commercial effect is often compounded by the more general damage done to social and political freedom.

In the course of this debate, I mentioned it to my publisher Jim Baen. He more or less virtually snorted and expressed the opinion that if one of his authors ? how about you, Eric? ? were willing to put up a book for free online that the resulting publicity would more than offset any losses the author might suffer.

The minute he made the proposal, I realized he was right. After all, Dave Weber’s On Basilisk Station has been available for free as a “loss leader” for Baen’s for-pay experiment “Webscriptions” for months now. And ? hey, whaddaya know? ? over that time it’s become Baen’s most popular backlist title in paper!

And so I volunteered my first novel, Mother of Demons, to prove the case. And the next day Mother of Demons went up online, offered to the public for free.

That was about ten years ago. Today, the book publishing landscape is changing rapidly, and I decided to write Eric a letter discussing the future of ebooks and the Free Library. As i think it’s an interesting topic, I present the letter, in full, below:

Hi Eric —

First off I want to say that I’ve been a big fan of the free library since the beginning. I discovered it fairly early on, and when I read your arguments regarding piracy and DRM and crackdowns, etc., I heard a voice that echoed my own quite closely. I thought it was a bold move to create the library, and am immensely gratified that it has been a success. Thank you!

I actually discovered David Webers HH books when Basilisk Station was in bookstores at a sale price — $3.99 I think when paperbacks were commonly $5.99. I bought it, loved it, and looked for later books. The twist is that that was right around the time I discovered the free library, (and I think that’s also when you started putting CDs in hardcovers). I had a Palm Pilot, so I downloaded some books, converted them to Doc format, and read them on the Palm.

So, of course, you didn’t get many direct sales from me, because I was getting them for free; BUT… I was also telling my friends what I was reading, and am pretty sure I turned at least three people on to the series, who probably bought paper copies. That was pretty much the intent though, wasn’t it? Seems to be working.

Jump forward ten years or so. It’s 2011 and I’m reading the Vorkosigan series on my Kindle, having gotten the books from one of the Baen CDs. (Incidentally, I didn’t use the mobi books, I converted the ePub versions, which had better cover images.) Back in the day the free library worked because I was unusual. The system as I understand it is basically predicated on the idea that people will prefer to read a paper copy, so the freebies will foster sales of the hard copies. Most people didn’t have Palms, nor were those who did all willing to read novels on the tiny dim screen. Today I go to the lunchroom at work, and there are four people (non-geeks) happily reading from Kindles or Nooks. Not a bit of paper in sight.

So here’s the big question:

With the rise in popularity of e-ink readers and iPhones, what do you see for the future of the Free Library? If I recommend books to friends, they’re today much more likely to just get the free copy and read it. The “people are honest” factor doesn’t enter into it because you’re giving the books out willingly.

Of course I read other books, both physical and electronic. Some ebooks I buy, some I get for free. But if a book people want to read is available for free in a format they commonly use anyway, where are the sales going to come from?

As a side note — I also fear that bookstores will go the way of music stores — and that would be a shame. Music stores aren’t a great loss to me, because in general you couldn’t listen to the stuff anyway — just look at the cover art. But bookstores are a different animal, and something will be lost when you can no longer browse shelves of books and discover something new that way.

Comments welcome, and if Eric responds I’ll let y’all know.

It’s a Big, Big, Big, Big Universe

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

A small lesson in a large topic:

(via Kevin)

Music for a Darkened Room (2009)

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

I reprint this article every year around Halloween, so enjoy. Happy Halloween!

I’ve got a lot of music in my ol’ iTunes Library — well over 3,000 songs — and in the spirit of Halloween, I have assembled a short playlist of the very, very best creepy songs I’ve ever come across (but you probably haven’t).

The Poor Clares - Resurrected LoverFirst off we have “Lover’s Last Chance”, by a little-known Celtic group from New Orleans called The Poor Clares. It starts off sounding just a bit cheesy, as the singer goes on about Halloween night and “werewolves a-howlin'”, but it quickly takes a turn for the dark, moving to a haunting ghost story and… well, give it a listen and tell me if it doesn’t give you the creeps.

The album is called Resurrected Lover, and though it may be a bit hard to find, it seems they pop up on eBay and the like from time to time. Get going in time for next year! If you like good Celtic music, one of the singers, Beth Patterson, has released some other albums that are available as well.

Note: The Poor Clares’ rendition isn’t available online that I could find, but another singer’s version is on iTunes. I like the Clares’ version much better, as the haunting background vocals really make the song.

Kate Rusby - HourglassNext we have I Am Stretched On Your Grave, as performed by Kate Rusby.

Creepiest. Song. Evar.

No, really. If Edgar Allan Poe had been a songwriter, this would have topped his greatest hits. It’s a traditional Celtic song (what is it with those Irish makin’ wit’ the creepy, anyway?), and it has been performed by others before, but this rendition really takes the cake, with a minimal rhythmic drive carrying you along down a very dark road. The only thing a bit odd about this song is that it is a woman singing what is lyrically clearly a man’s “role” in the story, but that’s easily ignored. it’s from her album Hourglass. Go get it! (link is above)

Third in the list is yet another Celtic tune (funny, when I started this post I hadn’t realized the common source of these three songs — the sound of them is different enough that they are far from sounding alike!) called “She Moved Thro The Fair”. Finbar Wright - A Tribute to John McCormackThis one is performed by Finbar Wright (former member of Irish Tenors) on his album A Tribute to John McCormack. There are several versions of this song out there, but again, rendition means a lot when looking for the truly creepy song. The interesting thing about this one is that it can sneak up on you. It’s entirely possible to hear this one several times before it suddenly hits you what happens in it — the lyrics are clear but subtle, in a way sure to appeal to fans of ghost stories.

New for 2008 I present a song by “the Geeks’ Weird Al”*, Jonathan Coulton. A couple years ago he underwent a project he called “Thing a Week”, in which he created a new song every week for an entire year, and put them up on his web site. Some are hits, and some are misses; but when he’s good, he’s great. One of these productions was a song called “Creepy Doll“, and tells the story of a house, and a locked door, and (naturally) a doll. Heck, you can listen to it on his site, so rather than me describing it, head on over there and listen.

Sting - The Dream of the Blue TurtlesLet us not forget Sting’s “Moon Over Bourbon Street“. A song written by Sting, inspired by Interview With The Vampire. ‘Nuff Said.

Okay, okay, okay I’ve got a bonus song for you. You’ve all heard this one, you just didn’t realize how creepy it is.

First, it’s story time:

A man comes home late one night to find his wife murdered, lying in a spreading pool of her own blood. He actually catches the killer in the act! There is a struggle, during which he clearly sees the man’s face, but the man overpowers him and escapes into the night. The police never catch him.

Years pass. The man never really recovers from his wife’s horrible death, or the thought that he was so close to catching the bastard who did it. That face — those eyes — are seared into his memory.

Late one cold winter evening he is walking at night when he hears faint cries for help in the distance. He follows the voice, and comes to a frozen lake, where someone has broken through a thin patch in the ice. The man runs toward the lake, grabbing a fallen branch along the way that he can use to help the man trapped in the icy waters. He gets to the edge of the ice, and slowly starts to work his way out closer to the man struggling desperately for purchase on the slippery edge of the hole. Suddenly he stops.

He knows that face.

He knows intimately the face of the man in the water. He has seen it exactly once before and will never forget it. After standing there for a moment, watching the man reach out to him from the freezing water, he turns and makes his way back to the shore and drops the branch, then turns and sits down.

..and watches.

Now go listen to Phil Collin’s In the Air Tonight. It will never be the same song again.

Happy Halloween.

“the Geeks’ Weird Al”: Yeah, I know seems redundant, but it really isn’t. If you listen to Code Monkey or RE: Your Brains (also kind of Halloween-y) you’ll know what I mean.

Gotcha Back!

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

This guy gets my vote for Best Use of Webcams:

Hit & Run > Gotcha! – Reason Magazine.

Nicely played.

Calvin Lives!

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

This is hysterical — a real-life tribute to perhaps the greatest comic strip of all time….

Calvin and Hobbes Snowman Tribute

I love the one with the shovel, and the sharks are nice, too…

Music For a Darkened Room (2008 Edition)

Friday, October 31st, 2008

I reprint this article every year around Halloween. As I did last year, I’ve added a song to the list — so check out what’s new, and revisit what’s old, and most of all, enjoy. Happy Halloween!

I’ve got a lot of music in my ol’ iTunes Library — well approaching 3,000 songs — and in the spirit of Halloween, I have assembled a short playlist of the very, very best creepy songs I’ve ever come across (but you probably haven’t).

The Poor Clares - Resurrected LoverNext, we have “Lover’s Last Chance”, by a little-known Celtic group from New Orleans called The Poor Clares. It starts off sounding just a bit cheesy, as the singer goes on about Halloween night and “werewolves a-howlin'”, but it quickly takes a turn for the dark, moving to a haunting ghost story and… well, give it a listen and tell me if it doesn’t give you the creeps.

The album is called Resurrected Lover, and though it may be a bit hard to find, it seems they pop up on eBay and the like from time to time. Get going in time for next year! If you like good Celtic music, one of the singers, Beth Patterson, has released some other albums that are available as well.

Note: The Poor Clares’ rendition isn’t available online that I could find, but another singer’s version is on iTunes. I like the Clares’ version much better, as the haunting background vocals really make the song.

Kate Rusby - HourglassNext off is I Am Stretched On Your Grave, as performed by Kate Rusby.

Creepiest. Song. Evar.

No, really. If Edgar Allan Poe had been a songwriter, this would have topped his greatest hits. It’s a traditional Celtic song (what is it with those Irish makin’ wit’ the creepy, anyway?), and it has been performed by others before, but this rendition really takes the cake, with a minimal rhythmic drive carrying you along down a very dark road. The only thing a bit odd about this song is that it is a woman singing what is lyrically clearly a man’s “role” in the story, but that’s easily ignored. it’s from her album Hourglass. Go get it! (link is above)

Third in the list is yet another Celtic tune (funny, when I started this post I hadn’t realized the common source of these three songs — the sound of them is different enough that they are far from sounding alike!) called “She Moved Thro The Fair”. Finbar Wright - A Tribute to John McCormackThis one is performed by Finbar Wright (former member of Irish Tenors) on his album A Tribute to John McCormack. There are several versions of this song out there, but again, rendition means a lot when looking for the truly creepy song. The interesting thing about this one is that it can sneak up on you. It’s entirely possible to hear this one several times before it suddenly hits you what happens in it — the lyrics are clear but subtle, in a way sure to appeal to fans of ghost stories.

New for 2008 I present a song by “the Geeks’ Weird Al”*, Jonathan Coulton. A couple years ago he underwent a project he called “Thing a Week”, in which he created a new song every week for an entire year, and put them up on his web site. Some are hits, and some are misses; but when he’s good, he’s great. One of these productions was a song called “Creepy Doll“, and tells the story of a house, and a locked door, and (naturally) a doll. Heck, you can listen to it on his site, so rather than me describing it, head on over there and listen.

Sting - The Dream of the Blue TurtlesLet us not forget Sting’s “Moon Over Bourbon Street“. A song written by Sting, inspired by Interview With The Vampire. ‘Nuff Said.

Okay, okay, okay I’ve got a bonus song for you. You’ve all heard this one, you just didn’t realize how creepy it is.

First, it’s story time:

A man comes home late one night to find his wife murdered, lying in a spreading pool of her own blood. He actually catches the killer in the act! There is a struggle, during which he clearly sees the man’s face, but the man overpowers him and escapes into the night. The police never catch him.

Years pass. The man never really recovers from his wife’s horrible death, or the thought that he was so close to catching the bastard who did it. That face — those eyes — are seared into his memory.

Late one cold winter evening he is walking at night when he hears faint cries for help in the distance. He follows the voice, and comes to a frozen lake, where someone has broken through a thin patch in the ice. The man runs toward the lake, grabbing a fallen branch along the way that he can use to help the man trapped in the icy waters. He gets to the edge of the ice, and slowly starts to work his way out closer to the man struggling desperately for purchase on the slippery edge of the hole. Suddenly he stops.

He knows that face.

He knows intimately the face of the man in the water. He has seen it exactly once before and will never forget it. After standing there for a moment, watching the man reach out to him from the freezing water, he turns and makes his way back to the shore and drops the branch, then turns and sits down.

..and watches.

Now go listen to Phil Collin’s In the Air Tonight. It will never be the same song again.

Happy Halloween.

“the Geeks’ Weird Al”: Yeah, I know seems redundant, but it really isn’t. If you listen to Code Monkey or RE: Your Brains (also kind of Halloween-y) you’ll know what I mean.

Get Dropbox!

Friday, October 17th, 2008

It’s unsolicited1 advertisement time her at Striderweb. First up: an amazing free program called Dropbox.

I downloaded Dropbox a few weeks ago, and I absolutely love it. What it does is creates a single folder on multiple computers that is kept synchronized. Working on your laptop? Put a document in the Dropbox folder and when you’re back at your desktop computer, that file will be in the desktop’s Dropbox folder. Update it there, and later when you’re back on the laptop you’ll have the updated file.

You can also share folders between accounts. I set up an account for my Dad, and now any time I want to give him a file, I just drop it into the folder I’ve shared with him, and it shows up in his folder on his computer. Email ain’t that hard, true, but emailing large files can be problematic, and Zip files get him every time. Beyond the syncing, the Dropbox folder is just like any other folder on his (and my) computer — there is nothing at all different about how you work with files.

I’ve also taken to depositing preference files for certain programs in my Dropbox. I use the excellent outstanding 1Password program to track my passwords and online accounts, and I keep the preference file in my Dropbox. Any time I open the program on any of my computers I have the same data. Cool!

Note that this trick doesn’t work for all cases. I tried putting my Firefox (web browser) profile in my Dropbox, and quickly discovered that when I was actually on the web, my computer’s processor and bandwidth were churning like crazy! Turns out Firefox is pretty constantly making changes when you browse — which makes sense, considering it’s writing cache files and such every time you pull up a page. So for every page I viewed, I was uploading that same page (in cache form) at the same time! I changed that back pretty quickly.

Another nice thing is the “Public” folder inside your Dropbox. Put something in there, and you can then get a public URL that will allow anyone to download that file. (Though I am curious how Dropbox will respond if someone put up something hugely popular — the bandwidth does cost them money somewhere along the line.)

The program is available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, and works across platforms. That is, you can sync a Windows Dropbox with a Mac Dropbox. I personally use it between two Macs, with a shared folder to a separate account on my Windows machine at work.

Best part? Dropbox is free, up to 2GB1. You can also pay for a Dropbox that will sync up to 50GB if you find you’re a heavy user. Personally, I’ve made pretty good use of it so far, and have only used up about 15% of my 2GB limit.

I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, as I said, and there are only a couple things I would like to see added. First off, I think they would be wise to offer a smaller account somewhere between the free 2GB and the 50GB options. The 50GB account is $10 a month — but how about a 10GB version for, say, $2.50 or $3? I think they would get a lot of paying customers in that range.

Secondly, they should strongly consider some sort of self-hosted variation of this. It would be great in a corporate environment, but I bet a lot of companies would not be comfortable storing sensitive files on a shared semi-public server. License the program to companies so they can run their own private systems on company servers.

Thirdly, the program could stand to allow a bit more control over certain things. The problem I had with Firefox could be handled if I could tell Dropbox “don’t sync this one folder”, for example. Turning off syncing my cache files, but syncing the rest of the profile folder, would be very cool. As an alternate, they could allow you to set certain folders so they sync, say, every ten minutes, instead of continuously.

These are just quibbles though. This is a great program, and I hope they’re successful with it. I look forward to whatever improvements they come up with down the road. Check it out. Here’s that link again. ๐Ÿ™‚

[Update: I’ve noticed something in the program that could stand improvement. I had a large folder in my Dropbox that I moved into another folder, also in the Dropbox. Rather than figuring out that it was all the same files, it re-uploaded the entire folder — hundreds of megabytes; which means that a sync that should have taken seconds took over an hour. I would guess that a fix for this is in the works, as again, bandwidth costs them money, and fixing this would thus directly affect their profits.] It was a bug, and is fixed.

[Update: Found the following “complaint” in the Dropbox forums:

I’m sorry to have to say this, but considering Dropbox’s current feature set, I don’t think it can really be considered a real product until there’s a way to give it a hug. I mean… all this fancy stuff you’ve made so far is great ‘n all, but I feel this overwhelming urge to hug Dropbox for being so awesome.

Heh. If they figure out that feature, they should sell it.]

1: Though this article was originally written without them, the links to Dropbox in this article are now “affiliate” links. I receive no money, but if you start an account though this link, both you and I get a bit of extra space for free. Win/Win! ๐Ÿ™‚

Just One Law

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

We’ve all played the game where you sit back and answer the question — “If you found a genie in a bottle, and were granted one wish — what would it be?” Well, here’s my variation on the game. Would you like to play?

The Question:

If you could be President for five minutes, and had the power and authority to pass a single law — any law — what law would you pass?

The Rules:

  1. The law can only do one thing. It can perhaps be a far-reaching thing, but no “I would pass a law that bans/affirms abortion and ends/increases welfare and ends/wins the Iraq War and….” — that’s cheating. You can take one idea and make it the law of the land.
  2. Be specific. Don’t say “I would end poverty”. What one law would you pass to try to end poverty? A $100/hr. minimum wage? Government-provided jobs? What?
  3. Be realistic. No laws saying “Nobody will get sick ever again.” You’re President, not God. No magic.
  4. Assume your law will last. Unless you explicitly put in and end date or sunset provisions of some sort, assume your law will not be negated or overturned for.. say… ten years at least.

Got all that? Okay, with the rules being laid out, here is my law:

The Charity Identification Act of 2008

Henceforth all federal government handouts — that is, any federal program that transfers money, service, or assets in any form to people or organizations that have not explicitly earned said transfer, or any such transfers by extra-governmental organizations (e.g. private companies) if such transfers are required by law or mandate — shall have the word “Charity” appended to the beginning of the name of the program, and to the name of all such transfers. E.g. — “Charity Welfare”, “Charity Emergency Room Care”, “Charity housing subsidies”.

Reductions in fees or taxes actually paid are not counted as “transfers” under this law* — e.g. reduction in the amount of taxes due by individuals or organizations is not a “transfer” for the purposes of this law. However, “refund” payments greater than the receiver’s actual tax burden shall be included — e.g. “Charity Tax Rebates” to those who pay no taxes but receive a rebate.

Such transfers that are given in exchange for, or in consideration of, military service are exempted, e.g. the “G.I. Bill” or veterans’ health care.

Okay, that’s mine. What’s yours?

(You can play along in comments below or post at your own blog. If the latter, please link back to this original post. Thanks.)

*: This one could be abused, I know. I’m trying to figure out how it could be rephrased. “not counted as transfers if applied across the board?” It somehow needs to distinguish between regular tax cuts and targeted tax subsidies….

Still Life

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

This is very neat: Frozen in Grand Central

That is all.