29 June 2009

Music video

“San Francisco” — song by Jill Sobule, directed by Margaret Cho. If you want to see that, you probably know who you are.

Now why do I recognize the young lady with the straight black hair who crops up at 1:00 and several other parts of the video? Have we met? Or is that just wishful thinking?

28 June 2009

Stonewall

Lucian K Truscott IV remembers forty years ago today.

Across the street from the Stonewall, a crowd of maybe 100 was watching the police march out a dozen or so bar patrons and employees into a paddy wagon. The young arrestees paused at the back of the waiting paddy wagon and struck vampy poses, smiling and waving to the crowd.

This was not the way gays were supposed to behave when they were arrested, and the officers started shoving them with their nightsticks. People in the crowd yelled at the police to stop. The officers responded by telling them to get off the street. Someone started throwing pocket change at the officers, and others began rocking the paddy wagon. Then, from the back of the crowd, beer cans and bottles flew through the air. In a hail of coins and street debris, the paddy wagon drove away with two patrol cars, and the remaining officers retreated inside the Stonewall, locking the doors behind them.

Soon enough, loose cobblestones from a nearby repaving site rained down on the bar’s windows. An uprooted parking meter was used to ram the club’s doors. Someone lighted a wad of newspaper and threw it through the bar’s broken window, starting a small fire. The policemen inside the Stonewall put it out with a fire hose, which they then turned on the crowd.

Instead of dispersing, the people in the street cavorted sarcastically in the spray, teasing the officers with suggestive come-ons. A few moments later, patrol cars came screaming down Christopher Street from Sixth Avenue. And at approximately 2 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, the gay men decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. The clash outside the Stonewall went on for 48 more hours and become famous as the riots that started the gay-rights movement.

Amazingly, there was no TV coverage and only a few paragraphs in the city’s daily papers.

Not so any more. On the editorial page of the New York Times, Frank Rich criticizes the President for failing to step up on gay rights.

On Monday, President Obama will commemorate Stonewall with an East Room reception for gay leaders. Some of the invitees have been fiercely critical of what they see as his failure, thus far, to redeem his promise to be a “fierce advocate” for their still unfulfilled cause. The rancor increased this month, after the Department of Justice filed a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the most ignominious civil rights betrayal under the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

The Obama White House has said that the Justice Department action was merely a bureaucratic speed bump on the way to repealing DOMA — which hardly mitigates the brief’s denigration of same-sex marriage, now legal in six states after many hard-fought battles. The White House has also asserted that its Stonewall ceremony was “long planned” — even though it sure looks like damage control. News of the event trickled out publicly only last Monday, after dozens of aggrieved, heavy-hitting gay donors dropped out of a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser with a top ticket of $30,400.

In conversations with gay activists on both coasts last week, I heard several theories as to why Obama has seemed alternately clumsy and foot-dragging in honoring his campaign commitments to dismantle DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The most charitable take had it that he was following a deliberate strategy, given his habit of pursuing his goals through long-term game plans. After all, he’s only five months into his term and must first juggle two wars, the cratered economy, health care and Iran. Some speculated that the president is fearful of crossing preachers, especially black preachers, who are adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage. Still others said that the president was tone-deaf on the issue because his inner White House circle lacks any known gay people.

Richard Bowes has another memoir of the event.

It's odd to be old enough to remember history. The Stonewall Riot always makes me feel like a citizen of Concord awakened by musket fire on that crisp April morning and wondering what the commotion was.

Stephen Colbert dedicates an entire episode to Stonewall, too.

Oh, and in my town we're having a parade.

27 June 2009

The King is dead

Michael Jackson
1958-2009
King of Pop

It seems I'm not alone in being surprised to find myself affected by his passing. The night before last, when the news was fresh, a friendly madman asked me for change and expressed his mourning. The following day, as I walked to work, I passed a dozen boxes offering me the San Francisco Chronicle with an enormous picture of Jackson on the front page: a concert photograph of him in motion, exuberant and gorgeous at the height of his powers, before everything we think of now when we hear his name.

Let's not kid ourselves about the crimes. But I think we can do that at the same time as we remember the uncanny brilliance he had for a time. Momus dug up an old essay of his naming well the paradoxes that so many saw in him.

He's black yet also white. He's adult yet also a child. He's male yet also female. He's gay yet also straight. He has children, yet he's also never fucked their mothers. He's wearing a mask, yet he's also showing his real self. He's walking yet also sliding. He's guilty yet also innocent. He's American yet also global. He's sexual yet also sexless. He's immensely rich yet also bankrupt. He's Judy Garland yet also Andy Warhol. He's real yet also synthetic. He's crazy yet also sane, human yet also robot, from the present yet also from the future. He declares his songs heavensent, and yet he also constructs them himself. He's the luckiest man in the world yet the unluckiest. His work is play. He's bad, yet also good. He's blessed yet also cursed. He's alive, but only in theory.

Seeing the picture of the Michael Jackson whom I had forgotten, I had a daydream yesterday morning.

On the night of Elvis' death Michael Jackson is nineteen years old.

The King's shade comes to Michael in a dream. The world is going to need a King of Pop, Elvis tells him. He plays a single note on his guitar and for just the length of a single heartbeat the note hangs in the air and Michael can feel what it will be like, to hold perfect poise in front of an audience of a hundred thousand, their voices raised with his in joy.

The shade of Robert Johnson is there too. The Grandfather offers a secret and a warning.

I can tell you how it can be you. My legend is true, and I can teach you how I did it. But the legend is also right that there's a price. You will be mocked. You will go mad. You will hack at your own flesh. You will commit the worst crime you can imagine. You will burn.

Michael is heedless of the warning. The moment of stardom which Elvis showed him is singing in his heart.

Michael wakes at midnight. He rises, donning shoes, a coat, and gloves against the night air. He steps outside and walks down the street to the crossroads, where the Devil is waiting. The Devil offers his hand, and its grip burns away Michael's glove. Though Michael's flesh remains unharmed, the pain is real and excruciating.

Michael smiles his best on-stage smile and does not let go until the Devil confirms that the deal is done.

Caffeine

Malcolm Gladwell, writing for The New Yorker about caffeine makes one of the kind of facile, reductive cause-and-effect observations that I enjoy but try not to take too seriously.
It is worth noting, as well, that in the original coffeehouses nearly everyone smoked, and nicotine also has a distinctive physiological effect. It moderates mood and extends attention, and, more important, it doubles the rate of caffeine metabolism: it allows you to drink twice as much coffee as you could otherwise. In other words, the original coffeehouse was a place where men of all types could sit all day; the tobacco they smoked made it possible to drink coffee all day; and the coffee they drank inspired them to talk all day. Out of this came the Enlightenment.
Not sure I'd go that far, but caffeine certainly does count as one of the key technologies of modernity.

26 June 2009

Music industry

Amanda Palmer explains again why the record labels are doomed, in (of course!) under 140 characters.
total made on twitter in two hours = $11,000.
total made from my huge-ass ben-folds produced-major-label solo album this year = $0
It's worth clicking through to see her whole story, which is a perfect demonstration of the one thousand true fans theory.

Can I say again that I have no f#*&ing sympathy for the record labels? Neither does Ms Palmer, for reasons I've chronicled before ...

24 June 2009

Nerdcore

John Hodgman's address to the White House Correspondents' Dinner isn't quite so astonishing as Stephen Colbert's legendary performance, but it is pretty terrific.
That is why we look to him and to this Presidency for inspiration and for hope. Hope, finally, that we can heal the great and shameful division that has plagued our nation for so long. I am talking, of course, about the age-old conflict between jocks and nerds. It is the culture war of our time.
If you noticed that has several levels of meaning, Mr Hodgman will not disappoint you.

23 June 2009

Less than meets the eye

Ebert on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.
Then he starts to get harsh.

22 June 2009

Term

Nick Mamatas at The Smart Set has a fascinating article about writing term papers for money.
the term paper biz is managed by brokers who take financial risks by accepting credit card payments and psychological risks by actually talking to the clients. Most of the customers just aren't very bright. One of my brokers would even mark assignments with the code words DUMB CLIENT. That meant to use simple English; nothing's worse than a client calling back to ask a broker — most of whom had no particular academic training — what certain words in the paper meant.
....
In broad strokes, there are three types of term paper clients. DUMB CLIENTS predominate. They should not be in college. They must buy model papers simply because they do not understand what a term paper is, much less anything going on in their assignments. I don't believe that most of them even handed the papers in as their own, as it would have been obvious that they didn't write them. Frequently I was asked to underline the thesis statement because locating it otherwise would have been too difficult. But that sort of thing was just average for the bottom of the barrel student-client.
....
The second type of client is the one-timer. A chemistry major trapped in a poetry class thanks to the vagaries of schedule and distribution requirements, or worse, the poet trapped in a chemistry class. These clients were generally lost and really did simply need a decent summary of their class readings — I once boiled the 1000-page New Testament Theology by Donald Guthrie into a 30-page précis over the course of a weekend for a quick $600.
....
The third group is perhaps the most tragic: They are well-educated professionals who simply lack English-language skills.
As with anyone writing about their work, the bits of lore about the craft are fascinating.

20 June 2009

Solstice

Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.

Sumer is i-cumin in,
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lamb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu!


Cuccu, cuccu,
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik thu naver nu!

Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu

19 June 2009

Intellectual property isn't

Michele Boldrin and David K.Levine have a cogent discussion of intellectual property law which will have you understanding the issue better than a lot of IP lawyers do.
Intellectual property law is not about your right to control your copy of your idea — this is a right that we have just pointed out, does not need a great deal of protection. What intellectual property law is really about is about your right to control my copy of your idea. This is not a right ordinarily or automatically granted to the owners of other types of property. If I produce a cup of coffee, I have the right to choose whether or not to sell it to you or drink it myself. But my property right is not an automatic right both to sell you the cup of coffee and to tell you how to drink it.

It is important to distinguish between property rights and contractual agreements. You could sell me the delicious cup of coffee you just made, and have me sign a contract agreeing not to drink the coffee after 4 pm. But if I were to violate this agreement it would not be theft. As a matter of law, you could not send the police after me. You could sue me for breach of contract - and the courts might or might not decide the contract was valid. But there would be no question of theft or violation of property rights.

So what is the contractual arrangement in current intellectual property law? The most significant feature is the agreement not to sell copies of the idea in competition with the person who sold you the idea. Outside of the area of “intellectual property” such an agreement would be called anti-competitive, and a violation of the anti-trust law. If you reach an agreement with someone else not to compete with them, not only would the courts refuse to enforce such a contract, but you would be subject to substantial civil and criminal penalties. “Intellectual property” in other words, is not about property at all, it is about legal monopoly.

17 June 2009

Ouch

I stumbled across the New Yorker review of Mama Mia!
The legal definition of torture has been much aired in recent years, and I take “Mamma Mia!” to be a useful contribution to that debate.
Vicious.

16 June 2009

It is a mystery

This Onion headline leapt out at me:

Even CEO Can't Figure Out How RadioShack Still In Business.

I have wondered the same thing myself.

15 June 2009

The revolution may not be televised ...

... but the internet is on the case. Solarbird says:
If you weren't already convinced of the American media's complete and wretched incompetence, dereliction of duty, and propaganda-lacky degeneracy given — just for example — the continued whitewashing of the American torture regime, the fact that they are essentially completely missing the coup d'etat and possible second revolution in Iran should seal the deal for you. Andrew Sullivan is doing the best he can to collate and relay material coming in from twitter and foreign services that are actually covering what's going on. Here is his weekend summary post, with a zillion links. There's more coverage at The Huffington Post.

Or, you can watch CNN, which spent the weekend talking about the Jonas Brothers and tomato-throwing contests. Go ahead.
Flikr is awash in photojournalism. They're saying at least a million people on the street in Tehran:

At the moment, Google News shows 2730 results for iran twitter. Take for instance Stephen Fry — yes, the actor! — tweeting:

Functioning Iran proxies 218.128.112.18:8080 218.206.94.132:808 218.253.65.99:808 219.50.16.70:8080 #iranelection - feel free to RT
Important work. Andrew Sullivan passes along a comment from one of his readers about this.
Ahmadinejad's and Khamenei's websites were taken down yesterday — I saw the latter go down within a couple of minutes because of a DDOS attack organised via Twitter. @StopAhmadi is a good source for tweets on this. The other important use of Twitter has been distribution of proxy addresses via Twitter. This would be how most video and pictures of today's rally have gotten out.
Plus I'd be remiss if I didn't plug my friend Tori's amazing blog View From (Outside) Iran; last week she was already telling the tale of the role of digital media in the Iranian election, among many other things.
My Iranian Facebook friends have all turned green. I don’t know if they are recycling or conserving energy, what I do know is that they have put a green overlay on their profile images in response to Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s green campaign for president of Iran.

Do you think we should vote? An old friend texted me this morning.

Are you kidding me? I texted back. In the election four years ago, this same old friend tried to encourage friends, family, and strangers to vote for the Reformist candidate Moein despite calls for a boycott. “Do you think America or some other superpower is going to save us? No. We have to vote. It’s the only thing we can do.” In the end, he influenced a couple of people, but could not even get his own family to the polls.

Today he is on his way to Azadi Square to participate in a human chain of Mousavi supporters that will stretch to Sadaghieh about 1.5 kilometers away.

Today is a Bruce Sterling moment: digital culture stands with the Iranian people. I promise to never joke about Twitter being useless again.

14 June 2009

Juxtaposition

A few days ago, Paul Witcover blogged something rather odd which he found through YouTube: Luciano Pavarotti and Lou Reed singing a duet of Mr Reed's song “Perfect Day.” You know the song; it's the one from the heroin overdose scene from Trainspotting. Mr Witcover said:

One of the most bizarre collaborations I've ever seen. I seriously thought I was watching some kind of animatronic horror show. Or that the Burger King guy was going to leap into the frame at any second...

As I've mentioned before, these kinds of contrasts are among my favourite things about pop culture. And to that point, there's something else which I stumbled across thanks to Mr Witcover: an advertisement for the BBC featuring “Perfect Day” with a host of famous singers each stepping in to sing a single line. Dig it:




Now having been a teenager in the ’80s, I have vivid memories of how the All Star Pop Song is a seductive but generally bad idea, which Tina Fey just recently mocked on 30 Rock. Yeah, it's overblown, schmaltzy, and just plain weird, but the BBC “Perfect Day” kind of charmed me.

Evidently I'm not alone, as a UK Independent article about the history of “Perfect Day” says ...

The film first appeared on 20 September [1997], deliciously unannounced. There was Lou Reed, looking like a leather jacket, singing the first line of a song that is deeply loved but not widely known. When his voice stumbled, on the suitably antiquated line “Drink sangria in the park”, his place was taken by Bono from U2, defying the critics with the same soulful ease that he brought to the Band Aid record 13 years ago. You wondered if it was a trailer. It just kept you hanging on.

....

It left you with a warm feeling, and the hope that you might bump into it again (the Sunday Times even printed a transmission schedule, which rather missed the point). Arty but uplifting, subtle yet populist, this was the public-information film for people who don't like public-information films.

The BBC received “a massive response” by post, telephone and — the contemporary clincher, the new touchstone of democracy — e-mail.

At the risk of making too much of a little pop video, it reminded me of one of the best productions of Shakespeare I've ever seen, a rendition of The Tempest. The program listed the actors on one page, the characters on another, without linking the two because the characters were attributed to props: a staff for Prospero, a shackle for Caliban, and so forth. Whichever actor held the relevant prop performed that character, and they handed the props around frequently during the play so that each actor got to squeeze in at least a line or two as each of the major characters. What was fascinating about the performance was that each of the actors did a significantly different interpretation of the characters, so you'd get wise Prospero, egocentric Prospero, absentminded Prospero ... often showing up in the course of a single scene. I don't know how it played for other folks in the audience, but as The Tempest is my favourite of Shakespeare's plays it was a feast for me.

Now allow me to bring in an old observation of mine about the surprisingly thought-provoking documentary The Aristocrats.

Since all of the comedians were telling variations in the same joke, you would see vividly what it was that made each comedian's voice their own.

“Perfect Day by Various Artists” doesn't do that, exactly. You don't get enough of each singer's voice to be brought to a new realization about that voice. But because their voices are so different, as with that performance of The Tempest there's a kind of commentary on the different ways you can read the original song, which then points toward the question of what it means to make a cover version of any famous pop song.

This works because many of the voices are deeply familiar: there are big pop stars like Bono and David Bowie, plus several cool surprises I won't spoil for anyone who's reading but hasn't watched the video yet. So in a single verse those voices bring with them a richer meaning than they could ordinarily hope to express in just a few moments.

Which brings me to Hank Handy's breathtaking “Beatles Mash-up Medley.”




It's a work whose effectiveness depends profoundly on the familiarity of the Beatles. An ordinary mash-up — say, Blondie/The Doors “Rapture Riders” or Storm Large and the Balls doing Abba-Gadda-De-Vida — charms with the craftiness with which it conjoins two different songs into a graceful whole. Handy's “Medley” does something else, shuffling more than 40 songs together, with as many as five songs at a time layered on top of one another. If the source material were anyone less ubiquitous than the Beatles it would devolve into mush, but because practically every chord invokes the memory of the song it came from instead there's a pleasure that comes from having all those songs summoned up for you. So too “Perfect Day:” just a few seconds of David Bowie is enough to stir up the bits of my brains that have Bowie tucked into them.

So then my final thought about that “Perfect Day:” it makes me want Mr Bowie to do an entire album of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground covers right now.


Update: The BBC brings us a sort of a sequel to “Perfect Day”, with the Beach Boys' “God Only Knows”. It has less voices familiar to a geezer like me, but I think that's probably as it should be.


Moore's Law

I remember reading that the old Palm III had a processor and memory equivalent to the original Macintosh SE, and here I was using all that computing power to keep track of my phone numbers and calendar. At 512x342 pixels the SE's grayscale display was better than the Palm's 160x160 grayscale display ... but not that much better.

Now consider this: Engadget tells me that the newly-announced iPhone GS S has a 600MHz CPU and 256MB of RAM ... with a 480x320 display.

I ran early versions Adobe Photoshop on less powerful hardware than that.

12 June 2009

Science art

Eat Me Daily describes Kevin Van Aelst's work as “food art,” missing the very important point that it is food science art. Tasty, tasty science art!

What's more, if you visit the art page on Mr Van Aelst's website, you learn that he has science art that is non-food-oriented.

11 June 2009

Today's quote

Momus says:
In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people

Smoking room

From a fascinating description of accomodations aboard the Hindenberg.
Perhaps most surprising, aboard a hydrogen airship, there was also a smoking room. The smoking room was kept at higher than ambient pressure, so that no leaking hydrogen could enter the room, and the smoking room and its associated bar were separated from the rest of the ship by a double-door airlock. One electric lighter was provided, as no open flames were allowed aboard the ship.
Nicotine addiction is a powerful force.

10 June 2009

Layers

I used to work with a guy who sometimes wore a t-shirt which said this:

It's a little joke on the seven layer OSI model for computer networking. The joke is that eighth, bottom layer.

Lately the diagram has been on my mind, because I've been thinking it's true of a lot of things, not just networking.

09 June 2009

Memorial

IAmDrTiller.com
This website was created as both a memorial to the lifework of Dr. George Tiller and as a living testimony to the courageous lives of abortion providers. ere you will find stories of individuals who have dedicated their lives to making

Pabortion safe, legal, healthy, and accessible to women and girls. These people may be nurses, counselors, escorts, volunteers at abortion funds, or abortion doctors themselves. You will not see the faces of these providers to protect their safety. What you will see is the story they decide to share — how they came to abortion work, what their function is at their abortion clinic, or their personal abortion story. We want to humanize these individuals to convey the kindness, courtesy, justice, love, and respect they have for women and the health care choices women make. We share our stories in hopes of ending clinic violence, to alleviate the shame associated with the abortion experience, and as an homage to Dr. Tiller's outstanding and courageous life work.

Chemistry

Via Paul Witcover I learn that the chemistry party is perhaps even cleverer than the internet party.

08 June 2009

Hope

Matthew Yglesias notices something that I half-noticed myself during the campaign, but didn't know to name.
Part of the rise of Obama is the rise of a post-television, post-sound bite technological paradigm. You can deliver a speech at 7 AM Eastern Time and know that even though relatively few Americans will be up to see it, anyone who’s interested will be able to Google up a transcript. And if people like the speech, it’ll become a YouTube classic. It creates a whole new world from one in which the point of a speech is just to field test a couple of zingers in hopes that one or two of them gets picked up for the evening news.
This is a very, very good thing for American democracy.

07 June 2009

Darkplace

I was just commenting to someone the other day about my love for “lost” cult TV series from the hazy memory of my youth: Tales of the Gold Monkey, Frank's Place, Darkroom, Open All Night, Brisco County, Jr., Nightmare Café. (Updated: I can't believe I forgot Tales from the Darkside! “Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. But there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit. A dark side.”)

Perhaps I'm not alone, because the folks at BBC4 have been good enough to re-release Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, which I stumbled across on YouTube. This ground-breaking '80s TV series combined elements of medical drama, horror, and science fiction.

Or, I should say, this parody combines those things. Mr Marengi, who hosts the re-release, is sort of a combination of Chris Carter, Stephen King, and Harlan Ellison ... only with a bigger ego. (He of course has an excellent website.) And if a good pastiche contains elements that you recognize, but cannot quite say where from, then Darkplace is great pastiche.

I've spent only ten minutes watching it on YouTube, but I'm already hooked. The show is so crafty that just as I was admiring the clever imititation of the voice of Mark Snow's scores for The X-Files, there was a joke about the legend about the origin of the The Prisoner theme song for goodness' sake!

06 June 2009

Metal

Van Canto are five singers, one drummer, and they cover heavy metal songs.

\m/

05 June 2009

Wonder Woman

Greg Ruka says:
She's not going crazy, she's not neurotic—you look at every other superhero ever and they are all malfunctioning in some way. In some way, they are internally malfunctioning—Diana really isn't, even with all the paradoxes and conflicts, she may be the most well-adjusted superhero out there.
For some reason, that really struck me.

04 June 2009




Today's quote

Barack Obama:
We have a joke around the White House. We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working ...
There are times when I wish he stuck to it better, but it is comforting that the President recognizes the principle.

Skiffy

Joss Whedon offers us seven things he loves about sci-fi:
  1. Spaceships in trouble
  2. Tough women
  3. Famous actors in the ghetto
  4. Lightsabers
  5. Robots
  6. Locations
  7. Kurt Russell
Worth reading even if just for his justification of Mr Russell.

03 June 2009

Smells like victory

Via Miriam at Feministing, I learn that the Los Angeles Times reports on Fairfax High's 2009 Prom Queen.
[Sergio] Garcia, 18, spent most of his years at Fairfax openly gay and wanted to be part of the Los Angeles school's prom court -- but not as prom king. He felt that vying for prom queen would better suit his personality, so he decided to seek that crown, running against a handful of female classmates.
....
On Saturday night at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, wearing a charcoal-gray tuxedo and a black bow tie, he was named prom queen.

“I felt invincible,” Garcia said.

Mr Garcia, this blog salutes you as a Great American.

02 June 2009

Game

It's been a long time since I've held polyhedra dice in my hand. I'm feeling the call of the geeky habits of my wasted youth.

A friend has talked me into volunteering to GM a monthly game of dice ’n’ bad acting to be held in the East Bay; I'm thinking first Sunday of every month, or something like that. We'd like to have about half a dozen players to make it work, so I'm recruiting.

Don't live in the Bay Area? Don't know what I'm talking about? Then never mind.

On the other hand, are you a Bay Areän geeky enough to hear the siren song of adventure when I say “Swords! Steam! Zepplins!” then I say read on, McDuff ...

My first thought had been to scratch my longstanding itch to play Delta Green, which is sort of a mix of X-Files and Lovecraft. But that seems like enough of a downer that it would be hard to get a group together. So it's steampunk to the rescue. Is there nothing that can't be solved through proper application of top hats and brass?

Here's what I'm thinking, though of course I write all of this to spark prospective players' input:

Style

I'd like the game to be swashbuckling, escapist fun: lots of hammy roleplaying, with a liberal splash of intrigue and adventurous derring-do. That should include a little combat — if you don't get to wave a sword around at least little bit, then you're missing a good opportunity for fun — but it shouldn't be the central focus of the game. (If you're hip to GNS theory: primarily narrativist, with a secondary gamist strain.)

In terms of rules system, that means I want something on the rules-light side. Not going all the way to diceless, but die-rolling should punctuate the game, rather than be the game.

Without getting too serious, I'd like a bit of moral sophistication in the game. Our heroes shouldn't just be out killing bad guys lightly and thinking it's okay because their foes are “evil.” That just creeps me right out. Fighting will be sometimes necessary, but NPCs shouldn't be getting killed right and left. And while I love a good dastardly villain as much as the next guy, even bad guys need to have reasonable motivations, rather than being simply evil.

I'd also like to make game sessions mostly free-standing adventures, threading in a little Joss Whedonish meta-plotting to loosely pull the campaign together. That goes with a premise that also admits occasional character absences so that if players miss a session, as they inevitably will, it doesn't disrupt the fabric of the game.

Premise

Our heroes are the crew of a privateer Zeppelin in service of the England in the steampunk 1890s. Their adventures include stuff like smuggling secret MacGuffins, spying on European rivals, rescuing kidnapped royals, archeology, and stuff like that. They have allegiance to the Queen but are not subject to the close direction of ordinary naval vessels; in a world that has telegraphy but neither wireless nor telephony, our heroes necessarily have a great deal of autonomy.

The aristocracy of Europe is constantly a-buzz with rivalries that threaten a war which England would prefer to avoid. Mad inventors like Nemo and Robur crop up as sinister threats. The European powers don't have colonies in this world, they have complex and delicate trade relationships with mysterious far-flung foreign nations like the Middle Kingdom, Wakanda, and the Lone Star Republic to supply a dynamic economy with precious materials like copper, cavorite, and red coal.

The skies are alive with great Zepplins and fleet, willowy ornithopters. The French are rumoured to have duplicated at least some of Nemo's submarine technology. Russia is criss-crossed by great triple-decker leviathan trains. Every shopkeeper keeps a Babbage calculator by the register, and the Mechanical Turk has defeated the greatest chessmasters of Europe.

System

Lacking a game system that I'm entirely happy with for this purpose — GURPS is too complex, Falkenstein too bizarre, and I don't know d20 well enough — I'm thinking I want to take the plunge and finally roll my own. Or sort of: I've been working on how to get the style I want from Fudge, a flexible system of simple mechanics. I have some ideas for cool swordplay rules ...

Interested?

Drop me a line and we'll confer. Since I'm still thinking through what kind of game I want to do, so if you have another idea, offer it up.

01 June 2009

Courage

Dr George Tiller
1941-2009
Courageous doctor

The New York Times reports:

George Tiller, one of only a few doctors in the nation who performed abortions late in pregnancy, was shot to death here Sunday in the foyer of his longtime church as he handed out the church bulletin.

In 1973, following the Roe v. Wade decision, Dr Tiller began performing legal abortions. I presume that he did so moved by the knowledge of the horrific consequences suffered by countless women who turned to unsafe black market abortions when they were still illegal. He came to be one of only three doctors in the US with the courage to perform late-term abortions for women carrying fetuses with fatal birth defects threatening the mothers' health.

I say “courage” because for these efforts, his clinic was bombed in 1986, his clinic faced daily protests and frequent vandalism, he commonly received death threats, and he was repeatedly investigated by legal authorities bending to pressure from anti-abortion groups. Plus three other doctors, and four other abortion clinic workers, have been assassinated by anti-abortion terrorists since Roe. Plus he himself had already been shot once before, in 1993.

Now he's gone, murdered in a church. No doubt because he did his duty as a doctor to work to preserve women's lives and health.

I'll say some other things later; you can guess what's on my mind. In this post, I simply mourn the great loss.