Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cursing Big Business

Those politicians, professors and union bosses who curse big business are fighting for a lower standard of living.

Virga: Sun of Suns

Karl Schroder's book Sun of Suns is set inside Virga, a mini Dyson sphere about 5000 miles across. There is a small artificial sun in the center, around which everything else drifts in slow orbits: lesser suns, spinning cities, spherical forests, icebergs, rocks, and immense clouds. "Winter" isn't a time, it's a location--anywhere that is too far from a sun, or shadowed by cities or other permanent features, and therefore doesn't get enough sunlight. Ships through immense clouds.

Hayden Griffen's mother attempts to start a sun for the city-state Aerie, but the project is attacked by Slipstream forces, a city whose orbit has brought it close to Aerie. Hayden sets out to seek revenge on the man responsible for the attack. He meets his enemy's wife, and a youngster serving in the Slipstream navy, and a woman from outside the world. They discover that an enemy nation is getting closer, and it has dreadnoughts; in order to defeat this enemy, they set out to find a legendary pirate treasure.

The story is interesting, the characters are realistic rather than cardboard, but what's really fascinating is the setting, and the worldbuilding behind it. Definitely buy.


During lunch today, I went to the beach at about 50th Street. Two pods of dolphins went by, heading north to south. The first group had about ten members, and they were all dark grey. The second group had six dolphins and two of them were a lighter grey. Perhaps they were Confederates?

No pics, because my cellphone made it hard to distinguish between "here's a fin" and "here's a pixel which is marginally darker than the pixels around it."

Self guided bullet

According to Wired, Sandia has developed what the article is calling a "self-guided bullet", i.e. a four inch long, finned bullet that can home in on a laser spot.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunspot Minimum?

Some talk from The Daily Mail about whether Cycle 25 will be lead to a mini ice age.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Took the Mutt out to the little woods next to Great Neck library, and let her run around. The ground has some low spots, enough for a mud puddle about two feet wide and ten feet long. The Mutt drank from it, then stood in it, then abruptly laid down in it. Could have been worse, though; she got straight up again when I called her, and she didn't roll around in it.

We've had a Bowflex for a while, and it's mostly been a not-very-efficient clothes rack. We finally sold it today. Yay! Money and more room.

Went to Echos of Time, a costume shop in Virginia Beach. They have lots of stuff there, a lot more than I'd expected from their website: Civil War uniforms, 1920s mobsters, medieval, science fiction red shirts, and more. There was a pith helmet that I'd have bought, except it was rental-only.

Discovered the Highlander restaurant about one block north of Echos of Time. It's an English / Scottish restaurant. It's a generic small restaurant, plus photos of pipers and Scottish landscape--but you're not paying "ambiance" prices either. Service was very good. I had a half serving of fish and chips; the fries were nothing special but the fish was a huge filet of fresh cod, hand battered right there, and really good. The other side of the restaurant is a mini-grocery where you can get things like shortbread, toffees, ales, fish & chips batter, shortbread, Devonshire cream, tinned haggis (not that you'd want to), lemon marmalade, or shortbread.

Went by a game shop to pick up some d20s. Why on earth do people make dice with die/ink color combinations that are nearly unreadable? Marbled brown dice with burgundy ink--you can read it in bright light if you stare closely enough, but why not make it "solid blue with white ink" or something equally easy on the eyes?


Josh got to spend a day working on Enterprize, a two masted topsail schooner, replica of the one that brought settlers to Melbourne in 1835. He had a seat on the end of the bowsprit, went up the ratlines (barefoot), furled the sails, got a bit sunburnt, and had a good time. It did not, unfortunately, have a gun larger than a signal gun. Anyone who has a 68-pounder carronade available, please let us know...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

XDM: Xtreme Dungeon Mastery

I saw the description of XDM: Xtreme Dungeon Mastery on the Schlock Mercenary blog. I'm still getting almost everything in dead-tree form, but I bought this in the Kindle edition and read it on my laptop.
Good point about e-book: you can click back and forth between the main text and the footnote.
Bad point about e-book: trying to find a font setting which makes the footnotes big enough to read, while leaving the main text small enough that the screen has more than six words at a time.

As for the content of the book...

The point of the book is to make RPGs exciting and entertaining. I'm all in favor of that, couldn't agree more.

About a third of the book is very good. Structuring a story, creating the atmosphere, keeping the pace, the Campbellian monomyth structure.

Another third boils down to "have a good, experienced DM and let him run things". You don't need a lot of charts, tables, skill lists, statistics and such, if the DM is good; you just get a few basic stats and then describe what you want to do. The DM assigns a target number and you roll a pair of d20s, to see whether you succeed or not, and how strong your success or failure is. This works out really well, quick and fun, IF you have a good, experienced GM. The fact that you don't have combat modifiers written down anywhere doesn't mean that you don't need them; you still need to know whether, for example, it's reasonable for a guy with a dagger to beat a guy with a sword, or a crocodile, or whatever you're likely to be facing. If those kinds of things aren't written down, they have to be in the DM's head. That is to say, this section is great if you have the sort of GM who doesn't need this section.

The third third was not useful--funny, a lot of it, but not anything to significantly enhance your gaming experience. It tells the imaginary history of the secret society of Extreme DMs. It tells you how to juggle, do card tricks, use flash paper, and perform a couple of stage illusions; but prestidigitation is hardly a key component of being a DM. I'm sure you can use magic tricks to enhance the game experience. I'm also sure that for the same number of hours, you'd get more benefit for your game by learning storytelling technique and doing prep work on your game than you would by learning stage magic.

I wanted to give this book high marks. For some people--people who have a moment of enlightenment and say "ah, I can streamline things and speed up my game", or people who haven't thought about making the game follow a story arc--this could certainly be worth every penny. In my case, though, I'm glad I only paid for the Kindle version rather than the hardback.


I'm looking for a hat, black, gambler style. Looked at Steampunk Emporium; the one I want is out of stock and they're not sure when it will be back in stock ("varies between a few weeks and a few months"). Ordered one from Hats.com on Sunday, with standard ground shipping; it arrived on Tuesday. Unfortunately, in this case, an XL is a bit too large, and the size L is out of stock as well ("could take up to three months") . I looked at a couple of other websites, but the right size / color / style combination is out of stock everywhere I looked.
Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is conspiracy. I set my world-renowed research and espionage organization to investigating. Whispers were exchanged in the back alleys of Bangkok, cryptic scraps of paper were silently passed from hand to hand in Angola, and a tattooed snake was examined in Iceland. My agents discovered that the entire world's production of gambler hats (black, size L) comes from Road Xing, a village in southwestern China; they are the work of a sixty-seven year old man whose name is either Four Lucky Dragon or Grumpy Venerable Hatmaker (China has two different writing systems and I'm not clear which one my spies were using). Mr. Four has been off visiting his sister and admiring his new grandnephew since October, and his apprentices are reluctant to do anything more than apply the bands to hats which Mr. Four has already blocked. And they finished that up in November. So, no new hats until Mr Grumpy finishes recuperating from Chinese New Year, goes home, and gets back to work. Plus time for shipping via yak to Nepal, bicycle cart to Bombay, and steamer across the Pacific.

[ edit: happy ending ]

afterthought: I should mention that I'm not ranting at Steampunk Emporium or Hats.com ; they both replied to emails in a timely manner and neither of them said "give us money now and we'll ship your item eventually". Sometimes you're just out of stock and that's the way it is. I myself once had a situation:
Customer: I need some Vespel (a high grade industrial plastic) , this size, that grade, in about three weeks.
Me: We're out of stock, and due to circumstances at the resin maker, that has a forty-six week lead time.
Customer: Okay, so about the middle of next month, I can live wi--.
Me: No, not "four weeks to six weeks". Forty-six weeks. End of October.

Monday, January 23, 2012

European separatists

A comment at Via Meadia:
"If there was only one way for a region / population to leave the EU, you would eventually end up having to break the cardinal rule against putting all your Basques in one exit."
--Bruno Behrend

So You've Discovered That You're A Fictional Character

An article from Cracked.com on how to cope with this momentous discovery. (It's been several years since I realized that I'm a non player character).

Sunday, January 22, 2012


"Your goal is not to get to the top of Everest--because if that's your goal, you're likely to die there and stay there. Your goal is to get back down again."
--climber's saying

The Difference Engine

The setting is the interesting part of this book. It postulates that Charles Babbage built his Analytical Engine in the 1820s; a techno-industrial party came to power in 1830; and British industry, science and power have been advancing steadily ever since. The United States aren't united; instead, we have the Confederacy, the Union, Texas, and the Manhattan Commune. Mexico is controlled by France and the first Japanese agents have come to England to learn about the Industrial Revolution and Babbage enginery. There are a few steam-powered cars on the streets of London, a well to do man might have several telegraph/tickertape lines in his house, the Imperial forces have airships and artillery computers, and every citizen is assigned an ID number which is used as a credit card and for government surveillance.
The story starts with Sybil Gerard, daughter of a Luddite leader and now a prostitute; her story runs a couple of chapters, and then she disappears. Then we meet Laurence Oliphant, a diplomat, spy and journalist, and deal with him for a chapter or so. Then we have most of the book, which is about Edward Mallory, a paleontologist who has been in Wyoming digging up a brontosaur; he acquires a set of computer punch cards and gets embroiled with some mysterious foes who want to get the cards back, or overthrow the British government in favor of anarchy, or find a perfect gambling system, or something. Then we're back to Oliphant for another chapter, then Sybil for a bit, and we wrap up with a hash of fictional newspaper articles, interviews, letters and bits.
I suspect this whole mess is supposed to be a retrospective from the point of view of the first Artificial Intelligence, but it's not at all clear. It was definitely not a "I can't put this down!" book; it was more of a "I'm determined to plow through this." If you feel obligated to read it, check it out from the library.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

English Rose Tea Room

We went to the English Rose Tea Room today. It's easy to miss--I drove past it the first time, and only found it on the second try because I knew the building number. Nine tables, about half full when we got there at 2:30. Dusky rose walls, a faux fireplace, and background music contributed to the ambiance, although it's marred by fluorescent lighting. Shelves on the wall behind me had various tea mixes, including caramel truffle and some less exotic blends. The china didn't come in sets; each cup went with its own saucer but there didn't seem to be two cups of the same pattern, and the plates were different as well.

First select your tea, one pot per person; we got white plum and raspberry almond, both of them made with loose tea and you had to remember to put the strainer on your cup when you poured. It wasn't as hot or strong as I'm used to (admittedly, I usually let mine steep for quite a while); it didn't come with cream, although that may have been because they weren't black teas. The sugar came in cubes, or formed in the shape of a mint leaf or maple leaf. After that came the food:

  • Two scones, one cinnamon and one crème brûlée flavor, with Devonshire cream.

  • A saucer of fruit, including blackberry, sugared grapes, and slices of apple and strawberry.

  • Soup and quiche. The soup du jour was tomato with carrots, potato and chicken, served in a teacup

  • Tea sandwiches (cucumber and cream cheese on white, roast beef on wheat, ham biscuit, pimento cheese on pumpernickel) and sweets (banana bread, cream puff, coconut macaroon with chocolate, and cake). The roast beef and the ham could have used some sharp mustard, in my opinion. I think of pimento as Southern, but I'm told it's popular in Britain.
It was a bit pricey ($50 for two) but enjoyable.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Maintaining friendships

‘If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.’
- Samuel Johnson

New Books

Got The GASLIGHT Compendium, Monster Hunter:Alpha, The Difference Engine, and The Anubis Gates.
Now the problem is deciding which one to read first...

Monday, January 16, 2012

January 16

On this day in 27BC, Julius Caesar--known to his friends as "Big Julie"--was given the title Augustus. This marked the beginning of the Roman Empire--and the end of the Roman Republic.

In 1605, the first edition of Don Quixote is published.

In 1707 the Scottish Parliament ratifies the Act of Union. People have been questioning the wisdom of this ever since.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


I went to MarsCon in Williamsburg today. My schedule:
I couldn't tag people and number them and attach little radio transmitters so scientists could study their migration patterns, but I'd guesstimate there were several hundred people there, possibly as many as a thousand, including guests, vendors, undead, steampunks, a member of the 501st Legion, a couple of jedi, a Sith, some Umbrella Corp guards, post-apocalyptic zombie hunters, miscellaneous geeks, and a few mundanes. Roughly 2000 square feet of vendor space, including Robert Quill, Artist for Hire and a couple other cartoonists, Hatton Cross Steampunk and a couple others with steampunk goods, The Leather Lair (they had some very nice coats and corsets, their website doesn't do it justice), plus people selling swords, books, games, tee shirts, jewelry, carvings, paintings and such.

Notes from the SM Stirling interview:
He said his e-book sales were 10% of his total last year, 20% this year. He likes reading books on history of logistics and such things; "world-building is good occupational therapy for lunatics who think they're god". He trained as a lawyer but had his dorsal fin removed, so never practiced.
The average book takes him 6-12 months to write, not counting gestation time. "The distinguishing mark of a real writer, compared to a wannabe, is...they write. And finish." He said his natural story length is a novel; "writing a short story is like stuffing a live cat into a Coke bottle without hurting it." And he said "If you're not having fun when you're writing, you're in the wrong line of work. It is work, but it's fun work."

Notes from the steampunk costuming panel:
"Ganymede Thornycroft" and "Finnegan O'Sullivan" were there with elaborate outfits. Most of the stuff people had was built with materials found in thrift stores, or bits picked up from the hardware store, or low-cost shops like Tuesday Morning. The best thrift stores are the ones by a military base, as they get a good assortment of strange things--things bought overseas, for instance. Get a Dremel or similar tool, and go to it. Steampunk: Gears Gadgets and Gizmos was recommended.

Notes from the writing session will be on Ficton.

Bought a couple of books and a game which I'll review later, had several people complement my paisley vest, resisted buying a handsome zatoichi sword for which I have no possible use, avoided the zombies, and had a good time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mars Con

I'm going to MarsCon in Williamsburg on Saturday. SM Stirling (The Peshawar Lancers) will be there, there will be a couple of writers' workshops, and a couple of steampunk panels.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Last Airbender

This is one of the rare movies where the film is better than the previews make it look. That's not to say that it's a fantastic epic; it's constrained by trying to follow the source material, and it looks like it was intended to lead into a TV series rather than be a stand alone film. (I know that there is a series; I don't know which came first). But within those constraints, it's not bad. The magic effects were generally well done; the earth bending might have used a little more imagination, but the other elements were handled well. I liked the fight scene with Aang and the Blue Spirit. I liked the fact that there was friction within the Fire Nation; I'd have liked to see more of that within and between the other nations. I'd probably see the sequel.

Random Walk

As part of my goals for the year, I'm reading nonfiction, which includes books related to finance. Random Walk Down Wall Street was the first one for the year, and it was interesting, but 90% of it can be summed up by the Amazon review:
Since stock prices cannot be predicted in the short term, argues Malkiel, individual investors are better off buying and holding onto index funds than meddling with securities or actively managing mutual funds. Not only will a broad range of index funds outperform a professionally managed portfolio in the long run, but investors can avoid expense charges and trading costs, which decrease returns.
He adds that an index fund which includes small caps is likely to be better than the S&P, and that reliable profit is the realm of the long term investor. If you like day trading, that's fine, but recognize that you're gambling rather than investing.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Vampire Empire: The Greyfriar

In 1870, vampires arose in the northern climes and attacked, driving humans out of Europe; the survivors fled to the equatorial regions, because vampires couldn't tolerate heat. Princess Adele is heir to the Equatorial Empire. Her airship is attacked, and she is captured by a notorious vampire war leader. Senator Clark, the pushy and obnoxious American war hero, plans an attack on the London vampires to rescue Adele. Rival factions of the vampire court jockey for power with Adele as a bargaining chip. And the masked swashbuckler Greyfriar hunts through vampire-occupied England.
I got this out of the library because it was marked as "steampunk". The main thing that bothered me about it is that a key vampire figure is inexplicably sympathetic with humans. I understand that the authors wanted to make this particular character sympathetic and interesting, but according to their own view of vampires, this is like having a wolf who really wants to be a sheep. I might be able to swallow it if the authors gave a reason for this vampire's unique interest, but they don't seem to have realized quite what degree of anomaly this is. Perhaps they're planning to explain it all in a later book, but it really weakens this one. Other than that, it was okay; something to check out of the library but not to buy.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

On this day

On January 7, 1610, Galileo made his first observation of the moons of Jupiter.

In 1785, two men flew across the English Channel, from Dover to Calais, by balloon. Note that it was in 1801 that that John Jervis wrote of Napoleon's invasion force, "I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


This afternoon we had the first snow of this winter. Sooner than I'd hoped for--I'd have liked another couple of weeks of warm weather, and some years we get that--but it's much better than the snowpocalypse we had last year. And this was (thus far!) just a few light flurries, no accumulation.


One of my goals is to pay more attention to my 401k at work, which is small enough that I can play around with it without worrying. Shares and their values right now are:
  • Akre Focus (AKREX): 13.45
  • Artisan International: 20.33
  • Cullen High Dividend Equity: 12.99
  • American Funds Europac R5: 35.95
  • UMB Scout International (UMBWX): 28.77

Monday, January 2, 2012

Crafts and Works

Today was mostly getting projects done around the house. Pulling the door off the deck storage closet, repairing it and reinstalling. Packing up the Christmas decorations and putting them in storage. Adding a bit of insulation in the attic.

One of the things I've had in mind for a while is to make decorative stuff (or semi-decorative--dice tower, for instance) from acrylic. So I got the jigsaw out, put in a fine tooth blade and started cutting a 2.5mm thick sheet, which was fairly fragile. Need to be careful to keep the sheet from vibrating, and advance the saw steadily, and don't try to cut sharp (30°) angles. Broke some pieces, but that's okay as all I was doing was getting the feel for it, not trying to create a work of art. 6mm sheet should be a lot easier to work with. I also experimented with flame polishing the edges, although I need to get a small propane torch do a good job of that.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Goals for 2012

  • Complete first editing pass on A Knife in the Dark by end of January. (Not completed)
  • Write 110,000 words of fiction this year. That means 50K for NaNoWriMo plus 500 words per 3 days; posts on Ficton count but posts here do not. (Not completed. 30K words for NaNoWriMo)
  • Weight 190 lb by end of March, and stay there. (Haven't been monitoring. At 211 now, which is down from 220)
  • Put up 7 posts per week, counting both here and Ficton. (327 posts = 6.29 per week. Almost there)!
  • Take a major trip (Anasazi and Grand Canyon). (Done!)
  • One mini adventure per two weeks; generally this will be "go to a new place" or "try a new food", although it also includes ultralight flight, taking a martial arts class, and making an acrylic artwork. (Not monitored)
  • Read one significant non-fiction work per month. (Not monitored)
  • Get my naval miniatures painted--enough for the Hughes v Suffren campaign. (Not done)
  • Complete one wargame battle per month, even if solo. (Done, although most of the battles were in September and October. See Battle Honors blog)
  • Acquire a rapier or similar weapon. (Done!)
So. Some failures, some success, some "I wasn't counting". Goals for this year:
  • Financial: check and adjust mutual funds every month
  • Complete Untitled Napoleonic Fantasy Starring Chadwick Awesome.
  • Write 110,000 words of fiction this year. That means 50K for NaNoWriMo plus 500 words per 3 days; posts on Ficton count but posts here do not.
  • Weight 190 lb by end of March, and stay there.
  • Put up 7 posts per week, counting both here and Ficton.
  • One mini adventure per two weeks; generally this will be "go to a new place" or "try a new food", although it also includes ultralight flight, taking a martial arts class, and making an acrylic artwork.
  • Read one significant non-fiction work per month.
  • Complete one wargame battle per month, even if solo, and write AARs.