I cast magic missile on the darkness

So as all true nerds know, 4th Edition for D&D is on the horizon.  I’m not precisely sure what all of the new features and changes will be.  (I do know that grappling is on the list though.  Presumably the changes will make is so that grappling is no longer the equivalent of a cleveland steamer in both enjoyment and usefulness.  This might be achieved by limiting the amount of dice rolls needed to less than the current number, which gets dangerously close to that of Amedeo Avogadro.)  Regardless, those changes are probably best covered by other, more knowledgeable, people on this site.  I’m just here to talk about the advertising.

Wizards of the Coast apparently approached the guys from PvP and Penny Arcade and asked them to do something cool to advertise the game.   Being webcomics, the fact that comic strips/panels were part of the end product isn’t particularly suprising.  But the comics are really just supplementing a pretty interesting advertising campaign.  They just played the game.  Wizards literally just provided a DM and everyone played 4th edition while a camera was recording the action.  The podcasts are being put up on the Wizards site each week and apparently it covers a lot of the new changes in the gameplay.  I haven’t gotten a chance to check it out yet so I don’t know if the result is something enjoyable or tediously boring.  But any attempt to sell a product by actually showing the audience the product in question rather than through the gaming industry’s normal smoke and mirrors routine is worthwhile endeavor.

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Bring on the cyborg future

It’s always good to end the week with the knowledge that our society is that little bit closer to creating our cyborg overlords.  From Dean Kamen (the guy who brought you the Segway scooter) comes “Luke”, a robotic arm controlled by a series of pressure pads and other controls.  In addition to being just plain badass and a far more useful display of Kamen’s technological genius than the Segway,  it movies us one creepy step further into cyborg territory.  Soon this king of technology will pave the way for the true cyborgs who will inevitably rely on eugenics in an attempt to perfect their remaining human components while forcing the rest of us to do their bidding.

But wait, you say…there’s a huge flaw in this plan.  Everyone knows that cyborg software technology often warps the human brain, turning the “person” into a promiscuous nymphomaniac.  How will the cyborgs keep from diluting the gene pool of their robotic master race?  An Australian research team found the simple answer: remote controlled implants that can block the vas deferens.  Now these horrible combinations of man and machine can hump anything that will sit still long enough and not have to worry about pregnancy unless they decide to allow it.   And as a huge added benefit, they can install them in the rest of us non-cyborgs to keep our population under control.  Leave it to Australians to mess up our only hope: overpowering them with sheer numbers.

Metal Review: Flies & Lies by Raintime

Of European nations Italy is perhaps last on a short list of providing truly awesome metal.  An opinion, after having listened to this album, I may have to examine with a more careful eye.  Lacking the outright silliness of fellow Italians Rhapsody, and lacking the weak/odd/annoying vocals of American progressive acts such as Coheed and Cambria and Dream Theatre, Raintime manages to combine pain, beauty, aggression and musicality into an impressively powerful brew.  Vocals range from death metal style growls to clean metalcore tones to gruff hard rock wrung from the gut.  The keyboard work is impressive but never overstated and lends an appropriate majestic air to the proceedings.  The sound is majestic but never pretentious, hard but never overly aggressive and intimate but never ranging into melodramatic. Raintime walks a delecite line between various lines of metal sub-genres creating a sound at once familiar and something totally their own.

Having listened through the album several times I’m still not tired of it, and after a long days work, is a worthy listen on the drive home.  It is an album almost meant to be listened to all of one piece, from start to finish, in one sitting with absolutely no tracks that make me reach for the skip button.  And that includes a cover song.  If you think you know “Beat It” think again.  It feels like the song was written for these guys to play.  Give these guys a listen, either on iTunes or their myspace page, if you don’t like what you here there is definitely something wrong with you.

Review: Swordmage by Richard Baker

Swordmage by Richard Baker Swordmage by Richard Baker

Wizards of the Coast, 2008.

Swordmage is the first book set in the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms and there are some changes to the landscape we’re familiar with.  Most noticable, and most hotly debated on the forums around the interwebs, is the death of Mystra and the collapse of the Weave.  Apparently this resulted in the creation of Changelands (areas where other realities, planes?, poke through into our own) and the Spellplague.  I won’t say yay or nay whether this destroys/ruins the realms we know and love but it certainly makes for a darker more dangerous landscape; not necessarily a bad thing.  I will whole heartedly approve of the return of the sun god Amaunator who I’ve been a fan of since he crossed paths with my Bhaalspawn way back in Baldur’s Gate 2.  All that is merely background stuff and doesn’t impact the flow of the novel too much.

The plot of Swordmage follows Geran Hulmaster who, surprise surprise, fights wielding a blade with one hand and arcane magics with the other.  After a disastrous duel Geran, a human, is exiled from the elven city of Myth Drannor.  We catch up with as he returns home, his halfling friend and business partner Hamil in town, to investigate the murder of a boyhood friend.  Once home he finds trouble and danger in just about every corner; from undead to political strife.

Geran is a bit of do-gooder of almost paladin like proportions.  Sticking up for friends, family and those he sees as done wrong, but with a penchant for brooding over his exile from Myth Drannor and the loss of his elven love.  Which is where I have a problem.  You see, in the aforementioned duel Geran maims his opponent surprising everyone, including himself, in the process.  My first thought was magical compulsion, but nothing is said about it and the event isn’t even explored after the opening chapter.  We never see any sort of “dark side” in Geran and his confusion over events transfer far too easily to the reader.  The fact that he accepts what happened in the duel rather then questions lends a certain flatness to the character that keeps him several notches below the Realms ‘greats’.  He’s not a bad character but he is a bit to shiny for my tastes.  On the other hand I liked Hamil a lot.  Not necessarily an original character but well drawn.  His love of children, his attempted wooing of women (even those more than twice his height), and his dry humor all meshed to create an entertaining read.

I think the novel spread itself a little thin in the plot department.  We have Geran trying to solve his friends murder and navigate the political quagmire at home in the process he is investigating barrows that were broken into and encountering a powerful lich.  Side by side with that we have a Warlock Knight of Vassa uniting the monstrous denizens of the north to open up trade and, perhaps, for other nefarious purposes.  Both plots leave little room to both get aquainted with the new Realms and the new characters but I have to admit that the explosion of colliding plots in the novel’s climax made for some thrilling reading.

As the first part of a series this is an interesting novel.  The action seems fairly self-contained with only two real dangling plot threads left to continue the series.  Both of which, appropriately enough, come together in the novel’s final pages a fact which actually has me anticipating the next novel.  As far as introduction to the new Realms I wish Wizards had maybe gone a different route.  The packed plot and considerable action leave little time to stop and look around, with only scant details about what has changed in the Realms having been shared it leaves one wanting a little bit more.  It looks like most of the details will end up in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting; a fact that leaves those who prefer the novels (i.e. me) starved for information.

Mediocre characterization and the almost bloated plot are elevated by an exciting extended action sequence in the novels final chapters.  A solid C+, recommended with some reservations but still likely to appeal to hardcore Realms fans.

Review: The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass

The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass (Tor, 2008).

Summary: A modern day, dark/urban fantasy mixed with Lovecraftian elements and shaken with religious commentary.

Review:  Richard Oort, a bishi police officer/musician, rescues a young sorceress from clay golems in the opening scenes of this novel; an act that draws him into a millennium long confrontation between the bastions of religion and science.  Eventually employed by a man named Kenntnis (who is more than what he seems) Richard becomes a paladin for forces of logic and reason.  Oort is aided on his quest to stop a second Dark Age by Cross (a multi-aspected deity who wants to die), a sassy medical examiner, the sorceress Rhiana,  and a fellow a police officer; as well as several others along the way.

The book walks some fairly novel ground by turning the notions of typical good and evil on their heads and painting religion into a very dark corner.  At the same time the book espouses some interesting ideas on faith and religion that center on a personal God and remaining faithful to humanity rather than a wrathful impersonal God.  Which, a little research shows, links it strongly to Theosphy.  Indeed the plot of the novel focuses on religion as an antithesis of theosophy; with religion being created a means to instill fear and obedience rather than a means to: “help humanity in evolving to greater perfection, and that each religion therefore has a portion of the truth” (Thanks wikipedia!).

Oort, a man of faith, shown nigh incontrovertible proof that his beliefs are misplaced is exposed to theosophic ideals by an Episcopal minister:

“I teach and have always believed that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that the kingdom of God is within you….I think every human is capable of Godlike behavior, so if you believe in yourself you believe in God.”
“So, by celebrating humanity…,”  Richard said slowly.
“You celebrate God,” finished Charlie.

Compare that with the closing remarks from a talk given by theosophist C. Jinarajadasa given in 1944:

The eternal problem for me which I am discovering is not that of an Impersonal or Personal God, but of God as man. I do not mean by God as man God on earth as an Avatar, as the Incarnation of God as Jesus, or Shri Krishna. I mean God in man as the human man, woman, and child. To know these “fragments of the Divine,”The eternal problem for me which I am discovering is not that of an Impersonal or Personal God, but of God as man. I do not mean by God as man God on earth as an Avatar, as the Incarnation of God as Jesus, or Shri Krishna. I mean God in man as the human man, woman, and child. To know these “fragments of the Divine,” who are struggling even as I am struggling through darkness to Light, –from an address in London, 1944 available at the Theosophical Society of Canada website

Interesting coincidence that I highly doubt is an accident and reveals a certain depth to the background research by Ms. Snodgrass that is impressive. In a world where religion was created by alien beings who feed on human fear, a theosophical argument seems about the only way one could go. However, I was not a fan of the means through which Snodgrass introduces those tenets to the novel. The dialog between Charlie and Richard is far too obvious and creates too much of a break in the flow of the novel. The thriller level pace of the action in the novel is halted for that one scene and, though it is a brief halt, it is a jarring occurrence.

Making the connection between the theosophy and the novel opens up some interesting areas of exploration. In particular Richard, bi-sexual and androgynous, is a fascinating example as an embodiment of one of the “three declared objects” of the theosophic tradition: “To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.” Richards skin is often described as being nearly translucent (numerous references to being able to see the blue of his veins) which to me goes a little beyond “white” to be almost absent of color altogether, but maybe I’m stretching it. The motley band of heroes as assembled in the final pages of the novel certainly runs the gamut of color, class, caste, and religion.  I’m not a student of theosophy and I’m sure one could make more connections (or totally debunk my own) but the connections seem there to me and provide an added depth when examining the novel.

Since this was a review, and I wandered a bit further afield from that than I really intended, I figure should at least get back on track for someone who wants to whether they should read the novel or not.

Interesting religous arguments asside Snodgrass crafted a tighly paced supernatural thriller that manages to stay interesting and thrilling from being to end.  The troubled Rhiana, the initially mysterious Kenntnis, and the confilcted and haunted Richard make for a compelling cast of characters that would be interesting and worth reading about even absent any major apocalpytic threats.  The familiar setting, crisp writing and breakneck pace lends a crossover appeal to the novel, while the examination of fundementalist religious ideals, even in the context of the supernatural, lend an air of currency to the precedings without feeling like it capitalizes on current events.  Overall The Edge of Reason was a great read flawed by some minor editing issues and an occaisonal hiccup due to didactic or exposition heavy dialogue.  A solid B+ read; recommended.

Samba de Amigo

The videogame industry as a whole as always loved the idea of the “peripheral”.  The Power Pad, the Zapper, R.O.B.  Dance pads, guitars, this monstrosity.  All of this, of course, flies in the face of reason since the vast majority of peripherals fail horribly and those that do succeed in the short term are inevitably reduced to hat racks because future games don’t support them.  Companies are always moving on to the next peripheral once interest in the current one winds down because they’re stuck trying to ride hype for sales instead of creating a reliable, future-proof product.  Most of the games using these peripherals are never revisited.

Samba de Amigo was one of those games.  It’s hard to top maracas and trippy looking monkeys in a music game for pure originality (and ridiculousness).  And based on the fact that there’s not a particularly large built-in market for maraca games, it seemed unlikely that the series would be revived after the Dreamcast died.  But fortunately for us somebody working at the husk of a company we used to call Sega stood up one day and declared, “Sweet merciful crap! The Wii controller could be a maraca!”.  Initial previews from Joystiq say the game works but doesn’t feel exactly the same as the old maraca controllers.  My own experiences with the Wii remote are leaving me skeptical about the ability of the games ability to read the appropriate movements.  I’m struggled through some sloppy motion detection on the system already, although I can’t tell you whether it’s from bad programming or the limitations of the controller’s hardware.  Needless to say, missing or misreading a shake of the hand in this game is going to leave a lot of music fans pissed and ruin the game entirely.

On a related note, Activision (hereafter referred to as “Sheep Inc”) saw their ready made fortune in the music industry slipping away as the Harmonix-helmed Rock Band started to seriously eat into Guitar Hero’s dominance.  And of course Sheep Inc did the only thing they could think of: they followed.  So now we’re going to have three different games (Konami’s making one too) that are remarkably similar.  Sheep Inc has practically no history of innovation and originality and it’s only gotten worse in recent years.  Harmonix suckered them completely.  They built up the number one music franchise, sold it for tons of money, and then quickly knocked it off the mountaintop with something new and better.  Sheep Inc is going to feel pretty stupid when all they can think to do is add two cymbals to the drum kit while Harmonix continues to basically print money by truly pushing the genre forward.

Review: New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

Set in an alternate 19th/early 20th Century where the British Empire still reigns supreme and magic and science collide Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam is an fascinating look in a world equal parts familiar and strange.

Warning:  Vampire Romance Ahead.  Words I almost wish I had heard before starting the book, but ultimately I’m glad I didn’t as I would have missed out on a good read.  The book’s main characters are DCI (Detective Crown Inspector) Abigail Irene Garrett and Don Sebastian de Ulloa (the aforementioned vampire) the more interesting of the two, IMO, is DCI Garrett but the book focuses heavily on Sebastian.  Garrett is a hard drinking older woman disgraced and suffering in self-exile in New Amsterdam; serving as the British Crown’s chief investigator of all things magical.  Sebastian is a thousand year-old vampire, also in self-exile, looking to escape the trappings of the “Blood’s” (vampire) society in the fledgling British colonies.

In a series of linked stories we follow Garrett as she solves cases and gets tangled in the political strife between the colonial government and the crown.   At the same time we follow Sebastian, working as a PI in the colonies, as he solves cases (crossing paths with Garret) and acquires a Court (a group of trusted/loved individuals he can feed on)  and gets involved in the same political struggles as DCI Garrett.  Each story is self-contained eventually forming a more cohesive narrative.  Each is well paced, typically featuring a magical twist on a typical detective fiction trope (the first story is a “locked room” mystery) and each builds on the relationship between Sebastian and his Court.

Not being a huge fan of vampire stories this wasn’t a big draw for me but the world crafted by Bear was so vivid and compelling and as a result I wish more time was spent on Garrett and her personal story rather than on Sebastian.  Sebastian isn’t a bad character, but he is familiar, the vampire as tragic hero type isn’t new, and was certainly less interesting (to me at least) than Miss Garrett.  Regardless the world Bear crafted really drew me in and I would like to see more of it.  Given the final events of the book a return to the Colonies and series on what’s going on there would definitely be something I’d read.

The book walks some interesting genre lines: urban fantasy, vampire fantasy (maybe romance, but not too much), alternate history but manages the balance in almost pitch-perfect harmony.  Recommened overall for fantasy fans looking for something a little different, even those that hate vampires in their fantasy should at least give it a look, and fans of period fiction looking to branch out.  If you’re hesitant, or can’t find a copy, check out Baen’s e-book service where you can find a sample chapter.

We Wants It!

Acer has some interesting new products.  One screams sexy.  The other only hints at it. Both scream sexy at ear bleedingly loud levels.

The sexy, technophile’s wet dream, is the newly unveiled Acer Predator.  With an orange case, with strange angles and bulked out appearance give it the appearance some kind of roided out robot.  The case looks to be a variant of In Win’s recent B2 Stealth bomber case (review), but I could be off.  Perhaps most impressive are the front access ‘EasySwap’ hard drive bays.  Video card options seem to range from the uber-ridiculous 3 9800 GTXs to the not-quite-as-ridiculous 2 8800 GT/s.  There are tons of other options listed in the specs but, oddly enough, only DDR2 (rather than the faster, crazy expensive DDR3) is listed.  Given that you’ll like have to morgage your house and sell both your soul and first born to afford a fully tricked out Predator, I find that oddly surprising.

The other bit of maybe sexy is the Acer Aspire Gemstone Blue laptop.  I don’t need a new laptop, but damn if it ain’t tempting.  Notebook review has a nice write-up here and some cost predictions near the end.  Acer says they start at $900 and top out under $2k, we’ll see about that.

Re: Hive Mind

Librarian Powers Activate!

A higher quality version of the demo is available at the TED conference site here.

More info is also up at the Microsoft Live Labs page for the technology, called Photosynth.  There is a demo there as well but my crappy work computer can’t run it (lack of even a cheap graphics card).  Be warned it requires use of IE 6/7, which already negates its viability assuming they don’t shoot for browser independence for the official release.  It might also be Windows specific, but if a Mac or Linux user (running Wine or some other means of getting IE to work….I guess) knows different let me know.

There is some other cool stuff on there as well including the team blog and links to specialized collections, including a link to a project with the BBC called “Your Britain in Pictures”, that might be worth playing around with.

The wikipedia entry provides a bit of trivia, some similar products, and other interesting tidbits.  In particular the science behind the whole deal: photogrammetry.  The photgrammetry article has a solid list of external links if you’re interested in finding out more.  Is it me or does photogrammetry have a delightfully 19th century science sound to it?

Last National Geographic has a video demo of the Stonehenge constructed using Photosynth.

Enjoy.