Sep 09

D&D Fourth Edition Q&A

Wizards of the Coast released Episode 15 of the D&D Podcast today, and this one has some solid information about the upcoming Fourth Edition. It’s a question and answer session in which Dave Noonan and Mike Mearls respond to two dozen questions from gamers about the new edition. You can see a list of the questions in the show notes, but here are some highlights:

  • How will players convert their 3E characters (and campaigns) to 4E?
  • Will action points be part of the core game?
  • How will encumbrance be handled?
  • Is the monetary system being revamped?
  • What about critical hits?

To hear the answers, you’ll have to listen to the show. What are you waiting for?
(If you don’t know what action points are, you haven’t played in the Eberron setting. But Ben has, and he’s promised to explain how action points work.)

Sep 08

Rats having fun

Most people are bewildered when I tell them that my family has pet rats. Having been indoctrinated with the conventional image of rats as nasty, disease-carrying vermin, they can’t imagine why anyone would want to have such creatures as pets. Of course they don’t realize that domesticated fancy rats are as different from feral rats as dogs are from wolves. I sometimes try to explain how gentle, affectionate, and fun our rats are, but it’s difficult to communicate in words.
From now on, I’m just going to point people to this video. It does an excellent job of conveying how entertaining pet rats can be. I hope the young lady who made the video is planning to pursue a career in television or film production, because she’s quite good at it. Other people have made video recordings of their rats and posted them on YouTube, but those are usually unedited footage and rather boring. This one is not only well edited, but also makes clever use of camera angles and music. Nice work, Linda!

Sep 07

The last one to know

I shouldn’t read comments on YouTube; I really shouldn’t. I’m not sure why the overwhelming majority of the comments on YouTube videos are posted by subliterate morons, but I have seen enough of them to know that this is the case. I know that reading the comments will just infuriate me, so it would be best for everyone if I just refrained from looking.
But sometimes I forget. In this case, I was watching this new music video, a duet sung by Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson. I foolishly allowed my eyes to stray downward, and found myself reading this:
“I didn’t even know Reba could sing, it sounds amazing with her, the original is great too though.”
You didn’t know. . . that Reba McEntire. . . could sing?
I know she’s done a lot of acting, and perhaps you first encountered her in that context. But still — you didn’t know she could sing?
She’s one of the best-selling country music artists of all time: over 60 million records sold. Her first #1 single was in 1982. She’s recorded 29 albums and earned 72 awards. The Country Music Association named her Female Vocalist of the Year four years in a row. And you didn’t know she could sing?
I know a lot of people don’t listen to country or pay any attention to the careers of country musicians. But Reba is a lot more than just a country singer. She’s a crossover international pop megastar. That acting work of hers that I referred to earlier? It included performing on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, and at Carnegie Hall in South Pacific: classics of musical theatre.
Yes, Reba McEntire can sing.
Good Lord.

Sep 06

The politics of zombies

I recently became aware that some people are supporting Zombie Reagan as a presidential candidate in the 2008 election. Their Reagan nostalgia is understandable, but the idea is doomed to failure.
Most people don’t know this, but zombies are not eligible for the office of President. After the constitutional crisis of 1945 (in which Zombie Roosevelt challenged the succession of Harry Truman), the Constitution was amended to specifically prohibit undead Presidents. The amendment has been the focus of continued debate among constitutional scholars, some of whom have suggested that a zombie would have been preferable to certain postwar Presidents. But no proposal to modify the prohibition has gained sufficient support in Congress. This is is probably because undead politicians prefer to pursue careers in the Senate (which has no ban on zombies and no term limit), and would rather not call attention to the issue. Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd, and Ted Stevens have all reportedly used their influence to ensure that any zombie-related bills die in committee.
Some students of Futurama have suggested that the repeal of the no-zombie-Presidents rule is inevitable, citing the victory of Richard Nixon’s head in the 3000 election. Critics have countered that Nixon’s head was elected President of the United States of Earth, not the USA. And it remains unclear whether a severed head kept alive in a jar meets the legal definition of “undead”. The question will probably have to be settled by the Supreme Court, and we won’t know whether this has happened until new episodes of Futurama are produced.

Sep 05

Be very afraid

Scientists are continually finding new evidence that everything is trying to kill you, and I do my best to point out new findings of this sort. In the past, I’ve warned you to be afraid of church air and flip-flops. Today I’m also warning you that laser printers and microwave popcorn are deadly. As a precaution, you should wear a hazmat suit at all times while in your office — and at home, too, if you have any laser printers or microwave popcorn there. No need to thank me; I’m just posting this information as a public service.
UPDATE: In order to better highlight this sort of news, I have created a new category of blog posts called “Things that will kill you.”

Aug 10

It makes cool slightly

The temperature hit 104 degrees today, so my initial reaction to the USB-powered necktie cooler was “What a great idea!” Then I remembered that I haven’t worn a necktie to work since 1992. That was at IBM, where people now wear shorts and T-shirts to the office. And now that I have a job that lets me work from home some of the time, I don’t even have to wear pants to work. Mind you, I’m not saying that I don’t — just that it’s entirely a matter of my own discretion.

Aug 10

Big Ben falls silent

The London clock known as Big Ben will soon be shut down for maintenance, depriving the city of its sonorous chimes for four to six weeks. But I’m puzzled about one detail. According to the AP article about this event, the last time the clock was shut down for repairs was 1990. Well, that can’t be right! Has the AP forgotten about the 2006 incident involving an alien spacecraft? It took a lot of repairs to get Big Ben running again after that.

Jul 07

Prophecies: mobile phones

Today is Robert A. Heinlein‘s centennial; he was born exactly 100 years ago, on 7 July 1907. I am tempted to write a tribute to him and his influence on science fiction and popular culture, but there’s really no need. Many other people have already done a better job of this than I possibly could. My favorite example is Spider Robinson‘s essay “Rah Rah R.A.H.”, which you can read online courtesy of the Heinlein Society. (That piece and a number of others are collected in Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master, if you want to read more.)

Instead, I’m going to commemorate Heinlein’s centennial by kicking off a series of posts I’ve been planning to write for some time. It’s called Prophecies, and each post will talk about a technological or social development that was predicted (often with uncanny accuracy) in written science fiction. My knowledge of SF is heavily weighted toward the Golden Age classics, so a lot of the predictions are from fiction that’s at least 40 years old, and sometimes much older.

My first example, of course, is from a Heinlein novel: Space Cadet, one of Heinlein’s earliest juvenile novels. The title is probably enough to make today’s audiences dismiss it, but the book is remarkably sophisticated for something written in 1948 and intended for preteen and teenage readers. Most of the story is about the training and education required for all officer candidates for the Interplanetary Patrol, a spacefaring force responsible for peacekeeping, exploration, and diplomatic contact with extraterrestrials. (Sound familiar?) One of the themes of this novel is that Patrol officers must understand the cultures and customs of alien races, so that they can present themselves as sentient and civilized by the standards of those aliens. In effect, Heinlein invented Starfleet and Starfleet Academy decades before the original Star Trek series.

But that’s not the prediction I want to talk about today. In the very first scene of Space Cadet, as protagonist Matt Dodson is arriving at Patrol headquarters to begin his training, he meets fellow cadet Tex Jarman and strikes up a conversation. A moment later, Jarman remarks, “Say, your telephone is sounding.”

“Oh!” Matt fumbled in his pouch and got out his phone. “Hello?”
“That you, son?” came his father’s voice.
“Yes, Dad.”
“Did you get there all right?”
“Sure, I’m about to report in.”
“How’s your leg?”
“Leg’s all right, Dad.” His answer was not frank; his right leg, fresh from corrective operation for a short Achilles’ tendon, was aching as he spoke.
“That’s good. Now see here, Matt — if it should work out that you aren’t selected, don’t let it get you down. You call me at once and –”
“Sure, sure, Dad,” Matt broke in. “I’ll have to sign off – I’m in a crowd. Good-by. Thanks for calling.”
“Good-by, son. Good luck.”
Tex Jarman looked at him understandingly. “Your folks always worry, don’t they? I fooled mine — packed my phone in my bag.”

A perfectly normal, everyday scene, right? But when I first read it in the 1970s, I was astonished at the notion of a telephone that you could carry in your pocket. A telephone was a stationary appliance, connected to a wall socket by wires. It was also bulky and heavy — an object that sat on a tabletop or was bolted to a wall. The notion that it could weigh mere ounces, be carried in a pouch or bag, and work almost anywhere was . . . well, it was science fiction.
Now we all have these phones, and we take them completely for granted. But let it be noted that six decades ago, Robert A. Heinlein described, with perfect accuracy, the mobile phone as we know it today. Rah rah R.A.H.!

UPDATE: Taylor Dinerman, in a column on Heinlein’s legacy, points out that he also described a mobile phone in the 1951 novel Between Planets — again, in the very first scene. Protagonist Don Harvey is riding a pony named Lazy in New Mexico when a snake startles the pony. After Harvey dispatches the snake (with a ray gun!), the two of them resume traveling:

He clucked and they started off. A few hundred yards further on Lazy shied again, not from a snake this time but from an unexpected noise. Don pulled him in and spoke severely. “You bird-brained butterball! When are you going to learn not to jump when the telephone rings?” Lazy twitched his shoulder muscles and snorted. Don reached for the pommel, removed the phone, and answered. “Mobile 6-J-233309, Don Harvey speaking.”

I had forgotten that scene. Dinerman is right; that’s definitely a mobile phone.