Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
  • Somewhere in the crusty outer layer of small towns surrounding the warm creamy center that is Oklahoma City.
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    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Quote of the Day

    "My core thesis is that the federal government delivers very poor value for the resources it consumes, and that society as a whole would be better off with a government that was less ambitious. This is not to say that it doesn't provide many valuable and even critical services, but that the cost of having the government provide them is much higher than you would tolerate from a company or individual you chose to do business with. For almost every task, it is a poor tool.

    So much of the government just grinds up money, like shoveling cash into a wood chipper. It is ghastly to watch. Billions and billions of dollars. Imagine every stupid dot-com company that you ever heard of that suckered in millions of dollars of investor money before leaving a smoking crater in the ground with nothing to show for it. Add up all that waste, all that stupidity. All together, it is a rounding error versus the analogous program results in the government. Private enterprises can't go on squandering resources like that for long, but it is standard operating procedure for the government."
    -- John Carmack, Government

    Posted by Tom, 10/28/2010 7:13:02 AM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010

    Quote of the Day

    "Some men can learn almost indefinitely; their capacity goes on increasing until their bodies begin to wear out. Others stop in childhood, even in infancy. They reach, say, the mental age of ten or twelve, and then they develop no more. Physically, they become men, and sprout beards, political delusions, and the desire to propagate their kind. But mentally they remain on the level of schoolboys."
    -- H.L. Mencken

    Posted by Tom, 10/27/2010 6:05:57 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    We need a werewolf hero

    Way back in the 1980's, the role-playing world was pretty much dominated by two things: Dungeons & Dragons, and games that were trying to compete with Dungeons & Dragons. Emphasis was pretty heavily centered on combat and magic systems... it seemed like every conversation I had with other players usually revolved around how game X's combat system compared to D&D's combat system. I bounced around from this game to that game, but my favorite was always the one I started with: Star Frontiers, which was made by the same folks who made Dungeons & Dragons.

    Shortly into the 1990's, a new company called White Wolf Games came up with their own spin on role-playing games, which de-emphasized combat altogether in favor of storytelling. Two of their flagship products were Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. (In 2003, they apparently revamped their entire "World of Darkness" game line, and I'm unfamiliar with anything they may have changed.)

    As far as I know, White Wolf really popularized the concept of entire societies of "monsters", like werewolves and vampires, running around in the shadows and on the fringes of human society, battling one another and causing all sorts of mayhem. They nailed down the political structure of vampire society and the rough-and-tumble dog-pack-mentality of werewolf society. They gave werewolves a reason for being, as defenders of nature or Gaia or whatever you want to call it (White Wolf called it simply the Wild/Wyld), and turned vampires into a shadowy conspiracy to run the earth as a blood farm.

    Apparently without White Wolf's permission, the Underworld movie took that whole idea and ran with it, pulling it out of the world of role-playing gamers and putting it on the big screen in front of everyone.

    In the meantime, we've had countless vampire shows on television. There's Joss Whedon's epic series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a buttload of shows about vampire cops or cop-alikes (Angel, Forever Knight, Moonlight, Blood Ties), moodier/sexier shows like True Blood, and even one based directly on White Wolf's source material, Kindred: The Embraced. And then of course there's the Blade series of movies and the never-to-be-sufficiently-despised vampires-as-glitter-fairies Twilight movies.

    If you're like me, vampires are starting to wear on your patience. It's time for a change. What we need is not another vampire show. Vampire heroes have been done to death. We need a show about hunting vampires, and not in a Joss Whedon way that spawns ANOTHER show about a hero vampire. We need a show that refers to them in the most unsympathetic terms, one that calls them (in White Wolf's vernacular) what they are: leeches. Parasites. Things that need to be destroyed.

    And just for an added twist, I think it's time for such a show to be led by a werewolf hero. Do away with some of the werewolf myths the way White Wolf did, like that stupid only-changes-on-the-full-moon thing, and let him transform at will. Give him access to White Wolf's five forms: the human, the wolfman, the wolf, the giant wolf, and (my favorite) the bipedal wolf-headed battle form.

    Sure, wrap some restrictions around him. Put him in conflict with other members of werewolf society who wish he wouldn't spend so much time around humans, and who are concerned about him revealing the secret of their existence. Give him an unpredictable temper that he struggles to control. Grab all the usual tropes, but twist them. Give him a love interest, but make her afraid of him for a change. Or give him several love interests and keep the audience guessing. Make it an exploration of alpha male behavior, or id versus superego, or whatever. It could even be a fantastic vehicle for exploring libertarian themes, of individual-against-society and so forth.

    But above all else: kill some damned vampires. Let's see wolfmanherodude shredding some leeches with those bigass claws. Make the case that vampires are evil, and for God's sake, don't sell us a warm-n-fuzzy vampire unless he's got a deeper, more evil agenda, so we can feel really good when wolfmanherodude literally tears his head off. Bring in other "World of Darkness" monster types to keep things fresh and interesting, but kill vampires. Wolfmanherodude gets out of bed with one purpose on his mind: killing vampires on behalf of all of us who are sick of the damned things (pun intended).

    Now, since all of the folks who write and develop TV shows are clearly regular readers of this blog, I expect we'll see this show launch in fall of next year. I'm holding my breath starting right... NOW.

    Posted by Tom, 10/20/2010 6:47:59 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    Thought for the Day

    Forty seems like an age where it would just be inappropriate to continue denying my adulthood. Very well, I am an adult. What now?

    Posted by Tom, 10/14/2010 4:42:37 AM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010

    Quote of the Day

    "The basic problem with criminal-justice reform is that both parties are very used to being the same kind of stupid about crime-related issues."
    -- Adam Serwer, The American Prospect

    Posted by Tom, 10/13/2010 7:22:28 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Out of the Dark

    The first three quarters of this, David Weber's latest novel, had me convinced that it was perhaps his greatest work to date. The basic plot is that a Galactic Hegemony has discovered Earth but decided that its primary inhabitants, us, were far too violent and bloodthirsty to be allowed contact with more civilized races, so the order was given to wipe us out.

    What follows is a grim tale of destruction as the Shongairi Empire, a race of canine beings, proceeds to systematically destroy Earth's fighting ability in an attempt to subdue us for its own ends. The Shongairi are confounded in their goals when human beings, though clearly defeated, refuse to submit to outside rule and continue fighting with whatever means are at their disposal.

    One of the great things about David Weber's writing is the way he explores how a person or group's psychological quirks can determine the course of history, and here he is truly in top form. His exploration delves into the pack or herd mentality of the various races of the Hegemony, and how submission to superior force is ingrained as a "greater good" survival mechanism, then contrasts this against a human being's willingness to fight on against hopeless odds.

    As is usual with Weber's work, he writes his way to an ultimate conflict or confrontation, and leads the reader to believe that things are going to end rather badly for the protagonists. Indeed, he spares them little agony, mercilessly killing character after character as is his style, and I found myself emotionally invested in seeing someone survive.

    And then, just when he had me convinced that this was the greatest book ever, he opens the final act and loses me completely.

    *** SPOILER ALERT ***

    As I've been working on my own writing, and trying to understand the structure of stories and the "rules" for storytelling, one of the resources I turned to was a book on screenwriting that actor John Schneider recommended in a talk he gave at the Phoenix Comic Con. Save the Cat is writer Blake Snyder's advice to other writers, and it's very good advice. He's talking about movies, but I think some of his rules are very appropriate to other forms of storytelling as well.

    One of these rules is that you should never ask the audience to believe in more than one kind of "magic" at a time. Suspending disbelief is something we all do when experiencing fiction, whether through screen or page, but there's a limit to how much one can ask of the audience. David Weber has broken this rule before, in his book In Fury Born, and I thought the result was rather mediocre, but at least in that case it was telegraphed early on that he was going to do it.

    Out of the Dark however, is sold as straight-up military science fiction in the best tradition of Weber's work on the Honor Harrington series, and if he had stuck with this it would have been the "greatest novel" I was beginning to believe that it was. But alas, he did not. Instead, he brought vampires "out of the dark".

    You read that right. Vampires. And not just any vampires -- Vlad the frickin' Impaler, Count Dracula himself. In a science fiction novel. The human race is up against a wall, with aliens plotting their ultimate destruction, and Weber rescues them by way of deus ex vampire. It is the cheapest, cheesiest thing I have ever seen, and I for one think it sucks.

    Fantasy and science fiction are not peanut butter and chocolate. They are not two great tastes that taste great together. There is a line between the "magic" of fantasy and the "magic" of science fiction and it should not be crossed except in very careful circumstances. There's a reason I've never played Shadowrun.

    So, for David Weber, a sci-fi facepalm:

    And for Out of the Dark, 3 out of 5 stars, and those are all for the first three quarters of the book.

    Posted by Tom, 10/13/2010 12:20:34 AM (Permalink). 3 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Saturday, October 9, 2010

    Quote of the Day

    "It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them."
    -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Posted by Tom, 10/9/2010 6:43:18 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Sunday, October 3, 2010

    Friends, Money, and Pizza


    I grew up with no real sense of myself as a man, and was a nerdy, wimpy kid. I remember being in junior high school, and getting beaten on mercilessly by the various other kids who had problems with me for whatever reason. I learned to take it. I developed a pretty impressive tolerance for pain.

    One such kid sat next to me in band class -- we were both trumpet players. His name was Andy. In between songs, he'd be elbowing me, thumping me on the leg with the bell of his trumpet, throwing jabs, anything he could do to try and get a rise out of me. The conventional wisdom was "ignore them, and they'll go away", but Andy seemed to take that as a challenge.

    One day, after several months of this abuse, I decided I'd had enough and after one particularly ouch-worthy series of blows, I calmly took a pencil out of my book bag and stabbed its point into his knee. Nowadays, that would probably get me expelled, but at the time Andy was so happy he finally got me to respond, and something in his personal sense of honor told him he deserved it, that we became best friends instead. We've been friends ever since. I was even best man at his wedding.

    Andy never really gave up trying to get me to fight back. I suppose it was part of his nature to want to see me stand up for myself, but I didn't really get it at the time. He'd start in on some "play fighting", which to him seemed more like play and to me seemed more like fighting, and I'd wearily and half-heartedly attempt to defend myself. Andy was far more physically fit than I was, and I always felt like I didn't really have a chance against him. Our size difference would also shape my body image for many years to come -- I've always seen myself as a tiny little nerd with stick arms and toothpick legs. It's only recently, in my late thirties, with some folks telling me (and providing objective evidence) that I'm on the larger side for men my height, that I've started to revise that self-image.


    Shortly after Andy was married, I got married, and my wife and I settled for a time in Bowling Green, Ohio. I went to work for a small computer shop, and there I met Carl. Carl was a lot like Andy in some ways, but more outspoken about it. He didn't just do, he pontificated about why he did. Carl would eventually introduce me to guns, and trade me my first gun for some computer memory, but that's a story for another time.

    Anyway, I was still thinking of myself as the grown-up nerd, but Carl was a grown-up nerd who'd been in the army, and while not as full-on "let's beat on Tom" as Andy was, he did teach me to have a serious attitude. Mrs. Curmudgeon did not like Carl, but she didn't see what I saw.

    Beyond his annoying modes of speech and his swaggering confidence, Carl had a sense of nobility and honor in him just like Andy. This was at a time when Mrs. Curmudgeon and I struggled to pay the bills and keep our heads above water, so naturally we were very concerned about money. I didn't have any real money management skills, but I knew that debts needed to be paid among friends, and there was another character at the computer store who made sure every last penny that he lent out got repaid.

    One day Carl and I had taken a break and walked to the local gas station to get something to drink. I came up a quarter short, and asked Carl if I could borrow one. He said "sure dude" and handed one over. A short time later, either that same day or the next, I stopped by Carl's desk and placed a quarter by his keyboard. "What's that for?" he asked. I replied, "it's the quarter I owe you."

    Carl got this really disgusted look on his face and said, in the most deadly serious tone I'd ever heard, "dude, don't insult me." Communicated in that look and statement were an entire set of expectations about how friends and money should intertwine. It said "real friends don't keep score. Real friends trust that accounts will balance on their own." I've never forgotten it, and I've used it several times on other friends.


    Some time shortly thereafter, a group of my college buddies -- fellow nerds, all -- got together for a weekend to play an epic game of Dungeons & Dragons. We'd split up and gone our separate ways after college, but this remained one of our favorite things to do for a while. During the course of this weekend, we had occasion -- as usually happened -- to order pizza. We were conducting this game at one friend's parents' house, and one of his local friends was also sitting in on the game. One friend wanted pizza from one place, the other friend from another place. The rest of us hadn't grown up in this town, and we didn't really know the difference, so we didn't care. We just wanted some pizza.

    We wound up buying a couple of pizzas from one place and a couple from the other. The host parents paid for it, as I recall, but then we were at the point of reimbursing them. A lengthy discussion ensued, with all of us standing around the dining room table trying to figure out who owed what. The problem was that only certain people wanted pizza from one place, but everyone was willing to eat the pizza from the other place.

    One guy went so far as to suggest a per-slice contribution from each of us, with a premium per slice from the more in-demand pizza. It seems to run in my mind that he already had a calculator pulled out and was running possible scenarios that would hopefully result in full reimbursement for our hosts. And of course, nobody was touching the pizza before we had this sorted out, so the pizza was slowly getting cold.

    Finally I asked, "how much is the total bill?" I'm sure I got an itemized response, with so much from the one place and so much from the other. The total came out to something like $36. I pulled out two twenties, slapped them on the table, and said "the pizza's paid for, I'm taking my two slices and eating them". I pulled two slices out of the nearest pizza, grabbed a drink and went back to the game table and sat down.

    I don't know what conversation ensued in the shocked silence afterwards, but I do remember that my closest friend of that group, a guy named Mike who was always the pragmatic sort, shrugged as if to say "problem solved", grabbed two pieces, and was right on my heels. We sat at the game table, laughing and eating while the others wrestled with what had happened and tried to figure out what pizzas they wanted to eat from.

    It was at that moment, I think, that I discovered an essential truth: generosity can solve a whole host of problems. So nowadays, when I'm faced with a social problem, one of the first things I look for is the possibility that if I can be generous in some way -- even ridiculously so -- it will clear out the antipathy or red tape or other crap and just get things moving again. I'm a problem solver. It's what I do.

    Posted by Tom, 10/3/2010 7:34:35 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...