Metal Review: Watershed by Opeth

Progressive music, whether it’s prog rock or prog metal, is an oddity. The genre (if it can even be called that) is definitely an acquired taste. Songs tend to be on longer side (some might say longer than absolutely necessary) and they usually incorporate a wide variety of musical sources. Call it what it is: a mish-mash of music. Weird time signatures and crazy instruments from 15th century Asia are the status quo. Why play that solo on a guitar when you can play it on a lute? But for all of the excesses that prog has given us over the years, it can frequently be a satisfying style of music. The bands in the genre tend to be both intellectual and musically talented. And they have produced some stunning works of art over the years (see Rush).

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Erikson Explosion!

Do two interviews really constitute an explosion?  I don’t know.  But given my excitement for the forthcoming Toll the Hounds, and my general enjoyment of all things Steven Erikson, my enthusiasm is rather abundant.

Jay Tomio of The Bodhisvatta has an interview over at FantasyBookSpot while Fantasy Book Critic has another interview over at his site.

So read up and get excited about Toll the Hounds.

D&D fans should might be interested in the Tomio interview, where Erikson mentions the early genesis of the Malazan world as a homemade campaign setting for his AD&D game, and talks about his first gaming experience.

Yet again more Steel Remains

Continuing my compulsory round-up of advance reviews of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains, nets me the first “meh” review over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.  I’m not sure I agree with some of his points, in particular his opinion that Morgan’s strongest point is character.  I think that Morgan is equally strong in his actions scenes. The chaos and violence sown by Kovacs in Altered Carbon stay with me to this day, and the action set-piece with the nano-monster from Broken Angels was pretty thrilling stuff.  Regardless, the review is worth a look, and as a video game player I’m well versed in tempering expectations and questioning the hype machine.

4e Review: PHB, Part II: The Good, The Bad, and the slightly more Bad

Opening note:  “bad” is a relative term here and likely inappropriate.  “Less good” or “not quite as awesome” might be better.

The Good:

UPDATE:  Forgot about the no penalties thing!  All defenses are modified by 1 of 2 possible stats.  You choose which at character creation.  Have a lumbering fighter with low dex?  No problem, simple add your strength to AC instead of dexterity!  A wizard smarter than she is nimble?  No problem, use intelligence to determine your reflex defense in place of dexterity.  Again this all serves towards the general trend of defining your character by what the CAN do rather than by what he/she CAN’T do.

Save for opening chapter the PHB lacks fluff and is super crunchy.  Not different from previous editions, but reads more like a Manual than other editions.  Essentially this lets the player learn the game before settling into a campaign, and leaves the DM free to craft the environment and atmosphere of the campaign world.  I’ve always felt that established campaign worlds have a lot of baggage for a DM to manage, by sketching only the barest outlines of a game world WotC leaves things wide open from a creative standpoint.  Of course this leaves later, non-essential, supplements to add flavor and fluff to the campaign world.  For those who love their established settings late 3.x saw WotC place emphasis on the Player’s Guide to [insert Campaign Setting]; a trend I like and a trend that will continue with September’s Player’s Guide to the Forgotten Realms.  The separation of Player info and DM info is a good thing and a published guide for Players certainly takes some of the onus off of the DM for conveying the mountain of information often needed to introduce a new campaign setting.

Read on for more…..

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Review: Rolling Thunder by John Varley

Rolling ThunderRolling Thunder

John Varley

Ace Books, 2008

A first-person narrative and somewhat sequel to some of Varley’s earlier works Rolling Thunder follows Podkayne (whose full name is so ridiculously long I won’t type it out here), the granddaughter of Mars’ first president, through her various careers (Naval and Entertainment) during a turbulent time in the, not so distant, galactic future.  The first thing I noticed about this book is the exuberance of the writing style.  Podkayne’s frank tone, clipped speech, and quick paced narrative indicate an author who seems to have had a lot of fun writing the book.  A fact that comes across when reading; carrying the action across at a breakneck pace and barelling though even the slower scenes.  A lot happens in this book, and Varley (and Podkayne) are up front about sharing with you everything that’s going on but aren’t so hip about explaining anything.

Hard sci-fi this is not. It walks a middle ground between the adventure sci-fi and classic space opera; never leaning to hard on the science aspect of anything.  That isn’t to say it isn’t there but, by putting us into the head of character admitedly mediocre at math and science, Varley neatly glosses over the technical aspects of the science allowing for metaphor and imagination to fill in the gaps.  More than science this is a book about the ideas behind science and, to some extent certainly, the intersection of science and art.  That intersection is embodied in the relationship between Podkayne and Jubal Broussard; as Podkayne states “We fit each other like yan and yang.”

On the one hand you have Podkayne, our singer who recognizes the slow singing of the strange alien crystal mountains of Jupiter’s Europa, with a strong verbal acuity but a weakness in math and science.  On the other hand there is Jubal Broussard, scientific genius (cited alongside Newton and Einstein), inventor of the “bubble technology” (a stasis field used for energy, as a weapon, as well as other more mundane things) and verbally and emotionally stunted do to severe childhood trauma both physical and psychological.  Somehow (again unexplained in the novel) the two become linked in the stasis spheres drawing them together.  In that inexplicable and unexplainable link between these two essentially contrasting characters Varley seems to be speaking about a greater link between both science and art that tends to get overlooked.  Not only that, but by not explaining either the greater cosmic mysteries (the songs of the crsystal mountains, the bubble technology) or the relationship between those characters, Varley creates another link between the idea of man’s mystery to himself to the greater infinite strangeness of the universe at large.

Or maybe he just wants to write another book.  Take your pick.

Packed full of adventures, mysteries, wonders and excitement Rolling Thunder was a past paced read with a straight forward manner the belies greater depth than at first glance.  There are some troublesome elements, there is a constant reference to ‘googling’ that takes me out of the action, and some elements of the absurd that occaisonally threaten to overwhelm the narration (“Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond-Broussard”, see my first paragraph), but the good far outweighs the bad.  Hard sci-fi fans might find the lack of explanation hard to swallow but I find the sense of mystery and wonder about the more fantastic science-fiction facets of the novels an integral aspect of the type of novel Varley set out to write; facets that hearken back to the classic science fiction stories of yore.  A B+ title bordering on an A, recommended for sci-fi fans of every stripe looking to be reminded about why they started reading sci-fi in the first place.

A different singularity

Ferrante and I have a lot of shared interests.  Video games, music, music games, and scifi/fantasy to name a few.  But we’re individuals and of course we have our differences.  He’s got comics; I’ve got sports.  He sports a full beard, while my facial hair is more akin to that of a middle schooler.  And he’s got computers, while I’ve got science.  I’m not saying I’m not computer literate.  I am.  But I can’t (also won’t) make my own computer.  Full control over the GHZ or whatnot is outside the realm of things I need from the machine I’m currently typing on.  Hell, the Dell laptop I’m using has a broken graphics card fan that makes a high pitched whining noise sometimes.  Most computer nerds would probably have a seizure over that.  Anyway, I fill the void left by lack of computer skills with science.

Fortunately, science and computer technology are not too terribly far apart (hence the name computer science?).  And they’re getting closer all the time.  So sometimes we have a meshing of our individual fields, like when scientists start using bacteria for problem solving. The method is pretty cool.  They inserted a plasmid carrying mixed up pieces of an antibiotic resistance gene into E. Coli.  They then inserted a Salmonella enzyme to randomly flip genetic material, waited for a bit, and exposed the E. Coli to antibiotics.  Any bacteria that survived would have had to form the entire resistance gene, thus “solving” the problem.  I’d be interested to know where they go next with this kind of technology.  Clearly the DNA computing system they’ve created can solve certain problems much faster than a normal PC.  But the obvious problem is priming the system so that it actually solves the problem.  You have to put in the plasmid/enzyme/etc that’s akin to the code for a computer program.  The more complex problems you want to solve with bacteria the more “stuff” you have to prime the system with and, as every scientists knows, there are always consequences of putting foreign materials into living things.

On the other hand, I’m looking forward to a day when I try to calculate something in Excel and my computer transfects bacteria to do it.

I <3 George Broussard

It’s only a quick endcap to a slightly longer interview but this represents the first new footage of Duke Nukem Forever we’ve seen since….E3 2001?  Does it look revolutionary?  Not really.  But it sure as hell looks fun, lot’s of shit getting blown up, and some classic weapons rendered in 3d.  With PC Gamer’s hints at some big announcements in this month’s issue one can only hope.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has an embedded video (needs flash 9 and hates Firefox 3) interview starts somehwere around 3 Minutes in.

Hypochondriacs FTW

John Timmer over at Arstechnica has an good rundown from the World Science Festival.  Specifically, he summarizes a panel about the prospects of genetic testing.  Not like the simple genotyping currently done to see if patients are carrying mutations or markers for a select few disorders but whole genome scans, producing a vast array of information for multiple phenotypes.  The holy grail of genomics is a scenario in which your DNA can be easily and quickly sequenced, risk factors in your genetic code identified, and therapies prescribed.  Clearly that scenario does not currently exist.  All the panelists agreed on one thing: genetic testing hasn’t gotten to a point where it’s a viable basis for treatments.  And I completely agree with that.  Right now the technology does little more than provide hypochondriacs lots of stuff to worry about.

The problem I have is the negative vibe that comes across from some of the panel.  Sure, running a SNP chip on your DNA right now would accomplish practically nothing.  The chip would be laughably incomplete and you’d only be getting a test for the fraction of disease-related SNPs that we’ve identified.  That doesn’t mean the technology should be shunned or put down.  You have to crawl before you can walk, other trite phrases, etc.   Technology is an exponentially growing field.  And as the gaps in our knowledge base get filled in, we’ll be able to provide better and better diagnoses for patients.  Each individual marker or polymorphism may only be a tiny piece of information when determining disease risk.  If I have a G instead of a T somewhere, maybe I have a 0.5% higher risk of getting Disease X.  But putting together a large number of them forms a foundation for a quality prediction.  Now you’ve got the genotype for hundreds or even thousands of revelant points in the genome.  And their benefit is exponential as we learn not only how they relate to risk by themselves but in conjunction with the other polymorphisms.  We may never reach the holy grail scenario I mentioned earlier (possibly because of environmental factors) but the potential is still there and that’s a reason for optimism.  Besides…if we don’t push forward with genetic testing the hypochondriacs will be stuck in the past, using WebMD to diagnose themselves with various ailments.  Won’t somebody please think of the hypochondriacs!?

4e Review: The Player’s Handbook, Part I: Overview

With 4th Edition upon us I’ll be taking a close look at the Player’s Handbook with slightly less intense looks at the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual.  My review will be broken into two parts (as if the title wasn’t an indicator) a fairly laborious Overview of the PHB and some of the major changes followed by a somewhate less laborious commentary on what has me crazy excited and what I’m not a huge fan of (Hint: the latter is a tiny list).  So read on for an introduction to 4th Edition.

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