Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mixed Feelings

On the good side of the ledger: I have finally -- it would seem -- defeated the useless dog and his braindead desire to bark loopily up and down the deck when the children come inside.

See, we have this dog. Kelpie plus a few other things. Smart as hell, but a dedicated working-type dog. Loves the kids. Likes to herd the kids. Gets real freaky if the kids are playing together somewhere, and it can't get at them.

The house has a long, north-facing wall, which makes sense in Tas. Along that wall, there is a long, narrow, low-set deck. It keeps the mud at bay in winter, and provides an excellent spot for outdoor chairs and beers. Unfortunately, when the kids come inside, the dog haunts that stretch of deck. It runs back and forth from the sun room all the way to the laundry, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of them, so it can continue herding them. And when they make noise - as children of ages 5, 7, and 10 often do - the dog loses it's nana and starts to bark.

I fuckin' hate that. Especially at 0715 in the morning, when Natalie has the day-shift and I've been writing until 0100. Jeez, I hate that.

So. We tried a shock collar. No good: unreliable, ate batteries. We tried a citronella collar. No good: expensive and the dog developed a citronella habit. (I swear!)

Desperate, I found a cheap-ass ultrasonic collar. It worked! But it was cheap, and eventually it died. And the dog gradually recovered his stupid habit.

So I have purchased a stand-alone unit that is now hanging up outside. And it's set so that when the dog barks, it emits a nasty ultrasonic warbling.

Lo! The dog no longer barks!

He shows no distress when the unit is triggered. It won't affect his job of looking after the driveway (south side of the house) or the garage (western side.) And when he sees something that disturbs him (the dog that tried to visit the chickens the other day) he can, and does, still bark on the deck. But for his goddam every-day up-and-down-the-deck look-at-me bullshit barking, it does the trick.


Now: the downside.

I'm married to a doctor. Sometimes that gets weird.

She was teaching two medical students to stitch today. To do that, she bought a couple of pork hocks. Pork hocks? What are they good for? Ahh. Apparently, once the stitching was over and done with, the hocks have now become a food item. I am to cook them. And feed my family, plus two medical students. Oops, belay that: phone call just came through, and I have two more doctors to feed on top of that.

Luckily, I also purchased a large pork shoulder roast. I have taters. I have salad greens. I have rosemary and garlic. I have rich dark chocolate and eggs and I have pastry shells. I have decent wine. I have cream cheese and wasabi, more cream cheese and chives. I have smoked salmon, and a variety of biscuits. Coffee is stocked. Port is standing by.

And why?

Because I know my wife. I knew perfectly well that it wouldn't just be two medical students! Ha!

The well-prepared country cook... that's me.

Now, the really irritating news: apparently, the bill for air-conditioning tents in Iraq and Afghanistan (something like US $20 billion) is more than the ENTIRE FUCKING BUDGET for NASA (at about US $18 billion)

I really hope that's just another stupid Internet rumour.

Gotta go now. Time to throw the bits of pig in the oven.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Children And Climate Change

I didn't want children.

I love my kids very much, and I'm glad they're here, but I've always felt that being a parent is a total commitment with tremendous responsibility. One chooses very carefully how and when one brings a child into the world.

Suppose we had our imaginary Zombie plague, and day-to-day survival became an unpredictable horrorshow. Would you start a family under those circumstances?

Of course not. At the very least, you'd try to organise some sort of real security before you brought babies into the world. After all, there's no point in raising 'em if they're only zombie-fodder, right?

But -- what if the Zombies hadn't arrived yet? What if you knew they were coming, and nobody was really preparing, and they were certainly going to arrive within a couple decades, at most? Maybe even less than a decade? Would you decide to raise children, knowing their adulthood was extremely uncertain, knowing the world they would inherit would be a fearsome, poisoned place?

I know some people would still do it. My wife, for example. On my own, I would choose otherwise.

Now. Here's the real thinking:

The braindead cretins who insist there is no such thing as global warming/climate change can safely be ignored. If you look at the state of the world, you can very easily, very clearly see a huge range of rapidly developing crises. All of them, more or less, relate to global human overpopulation, and the effects of fossil-fuel driven industries and agriculture. The list touches virtually every aspect of the existence of life on earth. It includes, but is not limited to:

  • Desertification
  • global warming
  • oceanic acidification
  • deforestation and environmental degradation
  • the end of oil
  • the end of readily available phosphorous
  • limits to available fresh water
  • limits to available arable land
  • the end of vital techno-minerals (indium, gallium, etc)
  • pesticide resistance
  • antibiotic resistance
  • rapid, global loss of biodiversity

There are plenty more. That is just a nice list to go on with. Some of 'em you probably won't even have heard about yet. You can either trust me when I say they are real, and serious, or you can go and do your own research. I don't mind either way. It won't change the facts. What's important is the interpretation you place on them.

Now, I regard myself as a reasonably informed, rational thinker. And as such, I cannot look at this list without concluding that the way of life we've enjoyed as a result of our use of fossil fuels and our technology is about to come to a grinding halt. Without a game-changing breakthrough such as cheap, reliable nuclear fusion energy, there is no way we can go on as we are.

I was aware of these problems ten years ago when my wife declared that children were a non-negotiable part of our relationship. At that time, I licked my finger, held it to the wind, and figured we probably had twenty years, maybe, before things really got difficult.

And then, because I love her, I agreed.

In agreeing, I brought three new human lives into a world which, I believe, will not sustain them as it has sustained me. I don't know how that's going to turn out. I'm very much a generalist, not a specialist: don't ask me for precise predictions in any one area, because I can't do it. (Not, I note, that the specialists are doing much better.) But short of a true technological miracle, I cannot imagine a way for it to end well.

The best I could do, ten years ago, was to convince Natalie to come to Tasmania.

Having children changed my personal outlook in terms of politics and activism. Birmo's latest online column talks about 'climategate', and in the comments, someone raises the idea that the world's political leaders have quietly decided that preventing climate change is no longer possible, so they're working towards living with it, and mitigating it.

That's how I feel about things. If I was to work politically towards conservation and towards decent stewardship of the earth, it would take all my time and energy. I'd probably wind up right out on the fringes, heading up various government agencies' list of 'potentially dangerous individuals'. But I can't do that and be a good father. Quite simply, the level of commitment necessary to even start to spark change or make a difference would require me to be unattached in virtually every way.

It's probably a good thing, really. Because underneath the sadness and the frustration, I really am very deeply angry about the way the governments and corporations of the world have bent us all over and fucked us on this matter. Angry enough that if I wasn't needed as a parent, I might well have decided to turn around and push back in the most direct and effective ways I can imagine. And I have quite a good imagination.

Never mind. It's coming, whether I like it or not. And I agreed to have children, and I have to make the best of that decision and do the very best for them that I can. So to everyone else, out there in the rest of the world: good luck. We're all going to need it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dear Chinese Porn Spammer

Dear Chinese Porn Spam Person

I'll make you a deal.

I've noticed the last few times you've put your inevitable link to some porn site or another in the comments section that you've actually gone so far as to include a comment. Not only that, but your comments have been creeping towards relevance.

For example: in the previous post, regarding my family and I preparing to go on holiday, you wrote 'Readiness is all'... and then added the porn link.

Now, I've got nothing against porn as such, as long as it's all about consenting adults, y'know? So if you really want to put links to porn in the comments on my blog... why should I care? The only reason I've been kicking your links off the comments is because you add nothing to the discussion.

'Readiness is all' is almost a contribution. But it's not good enough, I'm afraid, because it's a platitude. A cliche. A meaningless statement that incites no thought, provokes no reaction, achieves no end, adds no value. And therefore, your comment got the boot.

So here's the deal: you make yourself an active contributor hereabouts, and I'll leave your porny linkages in perpetuity. Because I truly, really, don't care if you're hawking porn, as long as it's legal and non-harmful.

But your comments have to show some kind of thought and insight. They need to be relevant. Bonus points if they're actually funny, by the way.

Okay, Chinese Porn Spam Person. The deal's on the table. What do you say?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gearing Up For Borneo

Yesterday, I ran the local chemist completely out of antimalarials. I suppose that's not surprising, since we're a family of five headed for Borneo for a couple weeks and all that... and how much demand can there be for antimalarial drugs in Tasmania?

I have to go back to the chemist today because he didn't even have enough for my dose/regime. Nat and the kids are covered, sure, but not me. Not yet.

Meanwhile, Younger Son cropped up with a case of wee fellow travellers. Dammit.

In Queensland, it was always summer that provoked outbreaks of lice. Here in Tas, it seems to be winter. Everybody's indoors, keeping warm, and the bugs get overconfident or something. Anyway, the whole goddam house went through decon on Tuesday, and we've got to do it again next Tuesday. Younger Son's the only confirmed case, but it's pointless not doing everybody. Mmm, that delightful scent of eucalypt and tea-tree... blark!

Report cards are coming in. The school has a new policy this year - sort of a quiet form of extortion. If you don't organise a meeting with the appropriate teachers, then you don't get a report card. Simple as that.

I wouldn't mind, to be honest. I think it's good for parents to meet with the teachers. It's just that I stay in touch with all three of the teachers who look after my kids. Elder Son's teacher I see maybe twice a week, and we swap emails. I send extra work to school for the kid, and suggest projects, and help him out with stuff she sends home. And I routinely drop in to pick up Younger Son for the language class, and I always take the time to chat with his teacher if he's not too busy. Same with the Mau-Mau... and for the luvva pete, she's only at school two days a week!

Anyway, we had a long dinner-type meeting with Elder Son's teacher. And I've had discussions with both the other two. The Mau-Mau's report is in (she's doing fine, thanks. Who fails kindergarten, anyway?) and the boys' reports will be in over the next few days. But I still got buttonholed by the school secretary on the way out of the Active After Schools martial arts class yesterday. Because all my meetings were informally organised and didn't go through the school office, there's no official record of them! Clanglanglanglanglang! Alarms! Excursions!

Happily, the secretary is a lovely person, hardworking and understanding, and she's aware that my kids have concerned parents who stay in touch with the system. The meetings may have been arranged informally and held out of the appointed hours - but they were real meetings, and all the right questions were asked, so hopefully there won't be any more problems there.

Meanwhile, I've let the regular martial class know I'll be away for a bit. I'll give 'em proper details next week. And I've cued the sword people as well. And we've got someone in to look after the house and the animals, and I'm arranging a fallback position if there's any problems there. The air tickets are done. The accommodations are done. The details of the trip to the orangutan sanctuary have been handled. Teachers have been cued about students missing some school time, and the boys have a video project to do on Borneo while we're over there. That should be fun.

Everybody's had their jabs. Malaria prophylaxis is organised. Passports have been duly rounded up. We're not going to pack very much, because our wintry wardrobe is completely useless in Singapore and Borneo. Instead, we'll take part of our two-day layover in Singapore to pick up lightweight tropical clothing, as well as some long-sleeved jungle-trek garb. The boys can bring their solar topee and their pith helmet... they will be simultaneously ironic and invaluable, particularly in the jungle section of the trip.

The Active After Schools martial class has finished for this particular instance, which is good. I will be happy to have some of Thursday afternoons back - although there's still a private sword training session at 1400. But that's okay, because I can finish in time to collect the kids from school.

Meanwhile, the mandatory attendance at the high school's annual 'trivia night' fundraiser has occurred. The 'Springfield Supercilious Society' managed sixth out of twenty or so, which is pretty good when you realise that most of our team was made up of kids of twelve and under. The margin between us and the winners was about twelve points... and since the winners scored about nine of their points in the ludicrous eating games which occurred between rounds of trivia, I don't think we did badly at all. The winning team consisted of grade ten kids from the high school, and frankly, there's nothing to compare with a fifteen-year-old boy when it comes to, say, shovelling Girl Guide biscuits down his neck. Our poor little ten-year-old competitor never had a chance!

Natalie continues to fray around the edges as we get nearer to this holiday. I guess that's normal. Everybody goes to pieces a bit in anticipation of a major break - and she's having a real break this time, eight whole weeks off. But it's not great from my viewpoint. She was already strung out and tense. The added pressure/anticipation of this holiday isn't really helping her at the moment. I'm hoping that once we're underway, she'll relax into it a bit. Certainly, she'll have the chance to spend a bit of time at home relaxing when we get back - we're not gone for that long anyhow. I just hope it makes a difference to her mindset.

Okay... that's it for now. I've got a pile of work and emails to catch up on, but right at this moment I have to take the Mau-Mau to lunch. Toasty sandwiches and hot chips, I expect...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Still Cold

Well. Both shoulders are a bit sore at the moment. I had my tetanus jab on Friday, in a late-afternoon rush of vaccinations. I'd arranged for an appointment for the kids and I after school, but like an idiot, I forgot because I was busily preparing for a dinner-visit from Elder Son's schoolteacher. Anyway, the doctor's surgery actually rang me about fifteen minutes after the appointed hour, so I threw the kids back into the car and we zoomed down the hill, where they were promptly shot full of flu-vax and hepatitis A vax. I didn't need the hep A, since I had a dose of the real thing way back when, but my tetanus immunity was likely on the wane, so I got that instead. I also neglected the flu-vax because time was short - but I caught up with it today, just to even things up.

The needles they use these days are fine, delicate things. I barely feel them going through the skin. But intra-muscular dosages still ache, even though my shoulder muscles are now large enough that a half-mil of fluid doesn't really constitute much of an insult. Mind you, I suspect I shouldn't have spent an hour or so on Saturday working with a shovel, helping out the cub-scouts and their new garden project. Not that it really did me any damage, but that tetanus-jabbed shoulder didn't feel too good afterwards.

Nor did my left knee. Time was it wouldn't have bothered me to spend half an hour on the back of a tilt-tray truck tipped up to fifty or sixty degrees, scraping heavy clay soil down into a raised garden bed. Now, though -- well. Apparently my left knee is no longer comfortable with supporting me at some berserk freak of an angle off vertical, while I'm simultaneously trying to shovel large quantities of earth downslope. In the rain.

Mmm. Admittedly, it wasn't much rain. But it was cold. And wet. And damn, but that clay soil gets sticky fast. I didn't feel at all guilty taking Saturday afternoon on the quiet at home with the kids after that.

The Friday night dinner went well. Elder Son's teacher this year is a wonder. He's having the best year of his school life so far - well regarded by his classmates, his cello lessons accepted, his use of the computer to do most of his writing work accepted, his imagination and his love of words and narrative not just accepted but encouraged. He actually looks forward to school these days, and it's completely impossible for me to thank his teacher enough, especially after the hard times last year. Anyway, Nat and I decided that instead of the 'parent-teacher meeting' we were supposed to have prior to the release of school reports, we'd just invite the teacher to dinner.

Happily, Natalie managed to be there even though she was on-call. (She's on-call a whole lot lately, what with the lead-up to holidaying in Borneo). We had a medley of steamed Chinese-style dumplings, followed by Vietnamese spring rolls, and finally, a tray of rich chocolate-ganache tartlets topped with home-made marshmallow. Personally, I wouldn't have stuck the marshmallows on top, but Younger Son was very pleased with the marshmallows he and I made, and he wanted to show them off. Okay, fine. They didn't really hurt the dessert anyhow. And it was a nice evening all round.

Hmm. Thinking more about those needles. I've been wondering how much of my lack of pain from the jabs had to do with the modern needles and vaccines and techniques, and how much was simply age and lack of sensitivity. But I watched both boys get their jabs. It was pretty well done: doctor on one side, nurse on the other, hit both shoulders at once and its all over. Both boys were pretty nervous - and well they ought to be. The Mau-mau did not cover herself with glory, getting one of her jabs first, before the boys had theirs. In fact, she screamed blue murder, cried, howled, struggled... when it came time for her second jab, Natalie actually held her in a complete wrap-up so she couldn't move, but she screamed just as violently as before.

She is, however, a notorious 'performer'.

Anyway, the boys were nervous, yes. But when the needles hit flesh, I could literally see them both relaxing, at least a little. They were obviously not enjoying what was going on, but clearly the event was well within their tolerance, and there were no waterworks whatsoever. This from a boy of ten and a boy of seven - and within minutes, it was clear both of them had pretty much forgotten the whole incident. So I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that yes, they've made some decent advances in hypodermic technology and techniques since I was ten years old or less...

...but the Mau-mau sniffed and sobbed all the way home. Sitting behind me in the car, she moaned to herself until Younger Son cracked and said: "It wasn't that bad. I had both mine at once!"

To which she replied, in a sad, tiny little voice laden and oozing with purest Hollywood pathos: "I just couldn't... take it."

At which point, dear reader, I admit that I asked her to be quiet until we got home. Because I couldn't take it any more either!

Sunday, Natalie's sojourn on-call came to an end. And with the winter rain closing in for the day in a big way, much was made of Natalie's most recent purchase for the Wii: Lego Harry Potter.

We've got a few of the Lego titles for the Wii, and the kids seem to enjoy them. I took a look at Lego Star Wars, and thought it was a bit of a laugh, but not really engaging enough to keep my attention. And I've watched some Lego Batman over the boys' shoulders, and seen nothing that really caught my eye. But I have to admit that this time, the Lego/Wii combination has pulled off a blinder. The sense of humour, the puzzles, the complex, meandering storyline -- but most of all, the massive array of Stuff To Do And Explore has managed to interest even me.

The game's a hoot. I even like the cut-scenes. Yes, they're long, but they do such a very good job of conveying crucial story elements from the movie while still rendering them in animated-lego-toy sort of fashion that it's impossible not to get a giggle out of them. Watching Lego Snape sneer and growl wordlessly at Lego Harry Potter; seeing the Lego Dursley family flee a rain of little invitations to Hogwarts... yeah, it's cool. Plus it does a nice line in shared play, so the boys can kick along together without too much drama, or you can even hand a remote to the Mau-mau, if you're prepared to put up with her version of gaming...which can be tricky.

Meanwhile: I've been working around house and yard, though I'm a bit hampered by the knee at the moment. (I really should be at sword training tonight, but there's just no way the goddam knee will put up with lunges or even deep bends.) And trying to catch up on writing, and laundry, and cleaning. The usual run of stuff. Plus I've got a couple random friends in hospital at the moment, for various injuries and illnesses: been dropping by to visit, taking them the odd DVD movie, etc. It all adds up.

Making preparations for the Mau-mau's upcoming fifth birthday, too. We'll probably be on holiday when that happens, but we'll have to make a fuss regardless. Seeing as how she spends much of her time playing at being a kitten or a cat, I've managed to locate an inexpensive cat-costume online. It arrived the other day, and it looks the goods. It's made by the same company (I think) that made the zip-up spotty-dog costume that Elder Son totally loved when he was about three, so hopefully it should provide the same quality of wear and usage. Of course, a full-body, zip-up, black, plushy kitty-cat costume isn't going to be very practical for the Mau-mau in Borneo, is it? On the other hand, I can't imagine her not wanting to wear it... so maybe I just better leave it here and give it to her when we get back. Otherwise she'll probably give herself a full on case of heatstroke.

I've also tracked down a source of plain cotton tee-shirts, and ordered a pink one in her size. It should be here pretty soon. I'll mess around with some fabric paints, and produce a sort of cartoon of a Tinkerbell-type fairy, with the Mau-mau's head/face, and I'll paint her new red boots (thank you, Rowena!) into place on the fairy's feet. Then I'll caption the whole thing with the old Black Sabbath song: "Fairies Wear Boots". Reckon the Mau-mau will like it, and the obscure pop-culture reference will make me happy too.

The kids are getting excited by the prospect of the trip, now. Younger Son's concept of time is still pretty elastic; he's not exactly certain how long it is until we leave, so he gets all wide-eyed at every reference to an aeroplane, and has to be reassured that we're not actually leaving tomorrow, no. Great Cthulhu... I hope he's a little more restrained than he was the last time we took a family holiday. That was New Zealand, back at the end of 2007, when he was just turning four, and he was a mad little handful. I've still got a photo, somewhere, of him taking a leak on "The Party Tree" in Hobbiton (from the movie.) I didn't even realise he was doing it until it was too late to do more than take a photo... he just slipped away from us in the group, and next thing I know, there he is, watering possibly the most recognisable tree in the world at that time. Yeesh.

And of course, in Borneo we'll be visiting orangutans. If that doesn't send him spiralling skyward, I don't know what will...

...okay. It's late. I have work to do. Gotta roll. But the good news is: we'll be back in time for the Federal election, so, you know, Our Votes Will Count.

Sh'yeah. Had a bit of a laugh reading the local paper this morning, checking up on the candidates for our electorate. Labor is fielding an ex-hospital administrator, with "strong local football club and surf-life-saving club ties." Meanwhile, the Liberals are offering us an ex TV-newsreader described as a 'prominent local personality.'

And the Greens? Pfeh. You'd almost think they were taking this seriously: their candidate has a background in social welfare and general management, and was the campaign co-ordinator for the party at their last election outing. So... experience and relevance both? How can that possibly compete with footy and surf life-saving ties? Or awesome TV-newsreader gravitas?

Those Greens. They'll just never learn, will they?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cold, Wet And Wintry.

The boys are off for the weekend on a scouty excursion thing. They're overnighting down in Hobart, in a whirl of rollerblading, ice-skating, rock-wall climbing and museums. Doubtless there will be singing, too. Campfires I rather doubt: it's pissing down outside, and has been for much of the day.

Natalie's on call, so the Mau-mau and I had to make the best of it. I took her up to the top of Mt Barrow this morning, in case we could find snow. There was a bit of it, yes -- muddy and melting, but enough to delight a nearly five-year-old girl. And it was snowing on us at the time, which was kind of cool. No, strike that: icy fucking cold.

We took the dog as well, just for hoots. He bounded out of the car on the mountain top, and lolloped his way straight to the nearest puddle. The water was crystalline, and I imagine it was no more than a degree above zero -- because he lolloped out again a lot faster than he went in, with the most remarkable look of canine confusion on his face.

Next he stuck his nose in a snowbank, and left it there for a while. Lots of sniffing. And presumably, lots of doggy sinus-freezing too. Because immediately he finished that, he took a quick pee and then sprinted back to the car and started trying to find a way in. The wimp! (And he threw up in the back of the car on the way home, too.)

The Mau-Mau and I didn't last much longer, truth to tell. The wind was blowing a fierce gale, cold enough to suck the breath from your lungs. We had our hats and gloves and jackets and boots and all the other bits, but really -- ten minutes was about all we could handle. That was okay: the Mau-Mau thought it was marvellous.

I got some shopping done, and did some DIY stuff in the garage... jeez.

You know, one of the big problems with intelligence is that one tends to see it as an all-purpose tool. You look at a hammer and a chisel and a chunk of pine, and you think: hell, it can't be that difficult, can it? Tradies do it all the time. What have they got that I don't, except maybe the butt-crack?

After ten years in the Rural Dad role, I can do a lot of basic stuff. Plastering, for example. I can do that. And simplistic carpentry. And tree-felling. And welding. And fence-erecting, and plumbing, and... yeah. But it's never pretty. It works. It lasts. But it's not attractive.

Sometimes I think there are people who are just born with this stuff. My dad, for example. He doesn't just build the odd chunk of furniture. Oh no. He manages full-on art, even when he's just making a chair out of an old barrel. And he could do that shit back when I was, like, five years old, so he'd have been maybe twenty-seven or so. No way he had time to learn all that stuff, so, you know - how'd he do it?

It's enough to provoke a certain feeling of envy at times, and leads to odd conversations with visiting tradesmen, viz: "Ahh, yeah. So that's a Froonburger's Spanner Joint, eh? Remarkable. Just remarkable. Say -- did I happen to mention there are at least three distinct points on the human body that a trained practitioner can strike to engender certain death? Of course, two of 'em are just obvious, but the knack of stopping the heart by disrupting the pacemaker mechanism with a thoracic strike is actually quite tricky to master..."

You know. Just so the guy with all that tool cred (and the alarming butt-crack) knows that the reason I can't get my goddam uprights perfectly vertical is that I was busy learning how to kill people with my bare hands, not 'cause I'm just fundamentally incompetent.

Anyway. I built the ladder. It's well anchored. It's solid. It's even reasonably neat and vertical. It isn't pretty, but it works, and it will last.

The Mau-Mau and I made marshmallows together. Vanilla ones, yeah: and a big FORK KEW to Cadburys and Nestle and Allens and every other prick bastard who makes those toxic bags of pink, yellow, orange and white squishy chemistry down at the supermarket. I've got real goddam marshmallows now: nothin' but vanilla, sugar, and gelatine, and you can just bite me because tomorrow I'm going to make heart-attack hot chocolate with proper marshmallowy melty goodness.

The Mau-Mau was impressed too. But that was because she got to lick the eggbeaters afterwards. And even better, she got herself some quality Godzilla time when we were finished.

Got some writing done: five hundred words on a new project, a few hundred on the libretto, a thousand or so on the novel. That's all good too. So: now it's time for bed, more or less.

I want to finish with one final request: Mel Gibson -- have you applied for US citizenship yet? If not, would you hurry up and do so? I'm hoping that eventually everyone will forget you ever had anything to do with Australia... with a little luck, we can dump Braveheart onto Youtube, and make the poor Scots take the blame for you and everything that comes out of your racist, sexist, nutjob mouth.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Uhhh, What?

Oh, yeah. Thursday.

Been a busy one. They had a pupil-free day, Monday... school-wise, that is. I agreed to have another session of Shattered Worlds, because I figured I could do it down at Amazing Neighbour Anna's place, and take the Mau-Mau too. That way I'd have all the kids out of the house for about five hours, and Natalie could enjoy her day off. A bit.

Things went a little loco, as always. Instead of four lads playing this time, I had... umm... seven. Three of whom hadn't even heard of this 'RPG' stuff before - until Anna's lads and mine talked about it at school.

I regard it as a small triumph that I kept the attention of seven boys between the ages of eleven and seven completely focused on battling imaginary goblins for five straight hours. Cue amazed parents in all directions, yes.

It's working well, though. The noisy lad who likes to be at the centre of things is, perforce, learning to wait his turn and co-operate. And Elder Son, who never ever thinks about anything before he does it, has now had two near-disasters, and is beginning to consider the actions of his priest of Thor in a new light. The young boy who is frequently drowned out by his older brother and tends to keep out of the limelight wound up leading a rag-tag peasant band in a last-ditch defense of the courtyard as the goblins swarmed the walls... very nice all round.

And yes: Natalie got most of a day to herself. Not that it helped a lot. She's a bit down in the dumps at the moment. She's not good with the Dark Days of Winter -- whinges about being cold, doesn't deal with the short days and lack of light, dislikes the grey and rainy stuff. There's plenty of other things hassling her at the moment too - but winter doesn't help.

Tuesday, theoretically, I had some time. I wrote. And I put up some insulation. And I did a frockload of laundry, and shopping, and cooking, and some gardening, and I slow-roasted a pork shoulder for dinner: crispy, crackly outside, moist and pull-apart tender on the inside. Yay me. Sorry, pig.

Then I dashed into town and watched shitty Japanese movies with the Cool Shite mob. I made them watch Lair Of The White Worm a few weeks ago. I'm not sure they've forgiven me yet...

Wednesday involved more insulation and laundry and writing. And then there was the evening of martial arts. I've got one student old enough and advanced enough to be doing some of the nastier throws, with the really shitty break-falls that spin you in the air and drop you from waist or shoulder height. And it would be okay if there was somebody else around he could throw - but the other kid his size and skill level has something called chondromalacia, and we're being gentle with him for a while.

So yeah, yours truly is being used as the crash-test-dummy in teaching some of the uglier throws and falls. I wouldn't mind, even at my age, except that the mats we use are dense foam puzzle-mats without a lot of softness, and frankly, after fifteen or twenty falls out of hane-goshi, I feel like a sack of shit. So. I'm going to go shopping and see if I can't find a few gym mats - the kind with velcro down the side to join 'em together. We'll only need four or so: just enough to make a decently padded space so I can survive these goddam throws. Hane-goshi. Tai-otoshi. Tomoe-nagi. Kata-guruma. Oh - and o-soto-guruma: what a total bitch that one is.

Where's that take me? Today, Thursday. I was going to sword training this evening, but Natalie is down, and she's on call. I'd have had to get sitters or visitors or something to look after the kids, and I just didn't think it was fair to Natalie. So after a bit of private sword training and then the hour-and-a-half with the schoolkids in the afternoon, I brought the kids home, and we just cleaned up, dealt with the rat cages, went through the musical instrument practice, and had dinner. Oh - and I managed to find a couple of Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies online. I put 'Eegah' on for the boys: they thought it was hilarious. Unfortunately, Natalie came home about halfway through... and apparently didn't find Richard Kiel's "giant caveman" impression nearly as hilarious as the rest of us.

Ah well. You get that. She liked dinner -- polenta-crusted baked salmon with rice noodles and salad with sushi dressing. That usually buys me a bit of cred.


I'm increasingly pissed off with the shift to the fossilized, egregiously stupid right wing of politics in this country. Gillard has the helm now, but she hasn't got the message. We didn't hate Kruddy 'cos he was a boring dipshit - even though he was. We hated him because he sold himself as an agent of change: change from that syphilitic pustule John Howard and the politics of pathetic cowardice. And when push came to shove, Kruddy was an even bigger coward than Howard. Howard played on the electorate's most shameful fears to get his ugly little ass elected, but Kruddy didn't have the stones to move us back towards sanity, no matter how much we begged him. He kept on being afraid: afraid of refugees, afraid of the Internet, afraid of nudity, afraid of beer, afraid of Christian disapproval, afraid of gay marriage, blah blah blah.

Kruddy lost favour because he was a nasty little coward, too paralysed by fear of losing popularity to actually DO any of the things he'd promised. He gave us some money. He made a couple of apologies. He had a shot at taxing resource uses, yeah. Whoopee. But ultimately he just kept playing the politics of fear.

And Aunty Julia?

Same shit. As ever. For fox sake: Pauline Hanson has just come out and publically approved Gillard's shiny 'new' East Timor proposal. And that odious prick Conroy is still sucking the teat of the God Squad, whining about Eevul Kiddie Porn and planning to shut down all the bits of the Internet that frighten him.

More fear.

When did Australians become such craven cowards? Didn't this country get started by a bunch of crims in leaky wooden boats? Didn't our present PM arrive from a sad little third world nation beset by the traumas of war? What happened to the iconic, legendary courage of the Diggers? Why are we terrified by a handful of sad, desperate people trying to flee some of the ugliest places on the planet?

This is pathetic.

So, all this goes through my head, along with a glass of rum and lime. And then I hop on the phone, and I call an old friend who works as a TV producer, and I pitch an idea for a TV doco series. Each episode would be maybe forty minutes. And each one, very simply, would hang on interviews with people from despised demographics. You'd maybe take a few quotes from the John Howard/Bogan crowd, talking about why they hate these people, and you'd intersperse those quotes with real-life interviews with prominent, valuable members of Australian society from that group.

The first show would be called 'Bludgers'. And we'd get shit-heels like Wilson Tuckey to talk about the eevuls of the Dole. Meanwhile, we'd interview pretty much every writer, artist and musician in Australia to show that half the reason they could do their thing was because they had the Unemployment system to fall back on. (Don't take my word for it, folks. Ask any working creative type you know. If they've never been on the dole... you're talking to a miracle.)

And businesspeople. And innovators, yeah. Because in Australia, the JobSearch payments are a safety net. You can actually take that nifty idea of yours and have a go, because if you fail, you don't lose your medical insurance, your house, your credit rating and your life. If you fail, you can roll with the punch, live the poor life for a while, and try again.

What else would I do? Oh, in a flash I'd do a doco called "Fags", and I'd be interviewing prominent gay men. Bob Brown, yep. Sportsmen - Ian Roberts. Artists, musicians, businessfolk. Performers. There's heaps. And of course, if you do an episode on "Fags" you've got to do "Dykes". And "Coons". And "Reffoes", and "Pakkies" and "Wogs", and -- pick your pejorative, go with the flow.

So that was what I pitched to my friend the TV guy. But he's good at saying no, so now I'm posting it hereabouts. Don't get me wrong: TV guy was impressed. But he pointed out that currently, the TV people are so goddam conservative -- even at SBS and ABC -- that he didn't think it would stand a chance.

That sucks. Because my friend the TV guy is right: it's a fucking good idea. And somebody ought to run with it. Real people, people with brains and a little empathy and courage: we should be doing this. We should take those stupid, fuck-awful pejorative terms that John Howard's pathetically spineless demographic likes to use in private, and we should make them public, and we should put real people and faces to them. We should be saying loudly: yeah, you can use these words, you can live in fear of these people, but really all you're doing is labelling yourself as a pathetic, cowardly, craven-arsed little nobody without half the guts and brains and integrity of the people you're trying to insult.

Because I, personally, am beyond simply being tired of these useless, noisy, bullying little toads. I don't believe for a fraction of an instant that 'the majority' of Australia is really so pathetic and cowardly. Sure: I've seen racists and dickheads. Every country's got 'em. But mostly, when I look closely, the real racist, misogynist, homophobic arsewipes are actually few and far between. It's just that they're arrogant and they're loud, and they're being curried by politicians who think these loud, arrogant, loathesome fools represent a larger group.

The funny thing is that most of the people who mutter agreement with these idiots are simply ignorant. They piss and whinge about refugees and queue-jumpers and fags and all the rest - but they've never actually met the people they're talking about. All they know is that someone - some loud, arrogant, spineless prick - has offered up 'refugees' and 'queue-jumpers' and 'fags'
as a convenient, simple reason to explain why things aren't all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. And instead of looking for real answers, the ignorant mob is happy to bay and howl at the straw man they're offered. And yet, in my experience, when you introduce the merely ignorant to real, live examples of their supposed enemies... they rather quickly discover their errors.

Truly? I don't think the vast majority of Australians are such cowards and racists. I think they've been offered easy answers and scapegoats by opportunist pricks like John Howard. I believe that if we spent some time and effort on showing that majority of people the true nature of the groups they habitually revile, we might just see some changes in the nature of pubic debate.

But that wouldn't make easy votes for an upcoming federal election, would it? And so, yet another politician talks 'change', and offers up the same old goddam fearmongering.

We deserve better. And we've got to ask for it, because if we don't, the moral cowardice of our so-called 'leadership' is eventually going to turn us, as a society, into the pathetic little slaves of fear that they assume we are.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Game Mechanics

Okay. Shattered Worlds will be a skill-based system — because I farkin’ hate the rigidity of character classes. Also there will be no nonsense about ‘alignments’. Characters will do as they see fit, according to their nature, whether they be players or the lowliest spear-carrying non-player. Good old D’n’D achieved its position by being the first modern RPG, not the best.

In a skill-based system, actions taken by characters are assessed for success or failure by a dice roll against their ability in a relevant skill. You want to shoot an arrow accurately? You need archery skill. Want to pick a lock? You’d better have some training there, yeah?

When it comes to using the skills, the GM assigns the task facing the character a level of difficulty. The character is then required to make a dice roll which matches the level of difficulty assigned to the task.

This process — this dice-rolling mechanism — is central to the game. You need to have it pretty thoroughly nailed down before you can go doing much of anything else by way of game design. In general, there’s two ways of handling it. The first is pretty simple: you go with a sort of linear scale based around something like a d20 or a d100 roll, and base the success roll against the character’s skill.

This is the road taken by a lot of well-known and popular RPGs. It’s the DnD method, for instance — insofar as DnD actually uses a skill system, that is. Fantasy Games Unlimited used a d20-based system to good effect: your character would develop levels in whichever skill, and when you had to test it, you might score a few modifiers on the roll depending on circumstances and how the Game Master felt, but ultimately, you had a Basic Chance of Success which was somewhere from 1 to 20.

For a long time, I worked with a system based on d100, but with a few twists. Players never knew exactly what their skill level was. I used to keep track of their skills myself. All they knew was a vague verbal description - anywhere from ‘abysmal’ to ‘master’, with ‘average’ falling somewhere in the middle.

The reason I chose such an obfuscatory tactic was, very simply, that the linear-scale systems are quickly and easily ‘cracked’ by savvy gamers. You know your character’s abilities down to the last decimal place; you throw the dice, and you know instantly the outcome.

I wanted more room to move. ‘Fudge factor’, if you will. I wanted to be able to keep characters alive if it suited the story, and I wanted to be able to do it without blatant, obvious intervention. I called it the ‘Hidden Hand’ system, and it worked pretty well, on the whole. But there was a lot of book-keeping, wasn’t there? A typical character might have fifteen different skills at various levels of expertise. Six players in a group: that’s ninety separate numbers to keep track of, session after session, game after game. Sure, you can cut corners with computers and good record-keeping, but... ouch, y’know?

D20 systems never really caught my interest at all, by the way. With only twenty possible outcomes... well, if you incorporate the idea of ‘critical’ successes and failures in your game (which is always fun) then you’re looking at a game process wherein one in every ten attempts to do something is either a critical success or a critical failure. So unless you start designing complex ‘critical’ tables (I’m lookin’ at YOU, RuneQuest) or throw in a secondary ‘intensity’ roll, pretty much any gaming session is going to be filled with a lot of seriously wild outcomes.

I’ve driven a car for nearly thirty years. Can't say yet I’ve had a ‘critical failure’. Possibly one occasion I’d call a ‘critical success’. So — one in ten? That’s a fucked-up game mechanism right there, if you're trying to simulate something that 'feels real'. (Or at least has that sense of verisimilitude you get in all the best stories.)

The alternative to the linear-scale systems is a sort of grab-a-handful method. In these systems, the necessary score for success gets higher as the tasks get more difficult. The twist is that as your character gets more skilled, you get to throw more dice. The old ‘Ghostbusters’ game used to work that way, and there are quite a few modern games that work in similar fashion.

I’ve never done much work with it before, but this is the mechanism I’m using for Shattered Worlds. The core die is 1d10, and levels of difficulty are based on the number 6. So: if you’re faced with a Level 1 task, you need to roll a 6 or better to succeed. Since you get to roll 1d10 for every level you have in the appropriate skill, it’s pretty easy to carry out a Level 1 task by the time you have 2 skill levels. In fact, if you do the math, rolling 2d10 (as you would with 2 skill levels) means you have a 90% chance of rolling a total of 6 or more. By the time you’re rolling 3d10 (for 3 skill levels) the probability of success jumps to just under 99%

The really interesting thing about this system is that the nature of the bell-shape curve you get from all that dice-rolling brings about some funky probability shifts as things get more difficult. Take the situation above: level 1 problem, versus level 2 skill — 90% success; level 1 problem, level 3 skill — 98.9% success. Now: let’s consider a level 5 problem, shall we?

Since our success number changes by 6 per level, you need to throw 5 x 6 = 30 to beat a level 5 task. If your skill level is 5, you have a 50% chance of success — exactly the same as a character of skill level 1 encountering a level 1 problem. However, if you have a level 6 skill, you’re throwing 6d10. So... what are the odds of success now?

Since I’ve had a good stiff rum drink while I’ve been typing this, I can’t tell you precisely. I can, however, tell you that it’s distinctly less than 90%. And if your skill is level 7, your chance of success is considerably less than 98.9%

In fact, the more challenging the problem gets, the more the probabilistic ‘playing field’ levels out. So: while a character with skill level 4 should be pretty bloody confident about being able to throw a 6 or better to beat a level 1 task, a character with skill level 8 doesn’t have anything like the same degree of confidence about beating a level 5 task.

I like this. I like it a great deal.

I like it because it solves a major problem for me in terms of magic. As a storyteller, I don’t like supremely powerful magical types because it’s just too easy for them to fuck up your plotlines. How do you pose interesting problems for characters who can solve ‘most any difficulties by dropping an asteroid on them? But: if you grade magic spells by power, and raise the task level appropriate for powerful spells — well, even quite powerful magicians stand a reasonable chance of failure, and failed magic is never, ever a good thing. Thus, by virtue of the central game mechanism, you create wizard types who are reluctant to hurl around seriously overpowering stuff because it’s dangerous, dammit! They could get hurt!

I like it also because it means while there’s a big difference between a highly trained practitioner and a noob, the differences get less important the higher up you get. Two characters battling, one with a skill level of 8 and one of 7 — they’re almost even. On the other hand, between a 2 and a 1 there’s quite a big difference, probabilistically speaking. That’s useful. It gives new characters incentive to stay away from really dangerous types until they’ve got some mojo of their own. It means you can always provide a challenge even for highly skilled characters just by creating a few skilled enemies. And it means that the highly skilled sorts will sneer at base-level problems — but will never have reason to be overconfident of their ability to handle things that are close to their own level.

There remains only the question of critical successes and failures. Personally, I like ‘em. I like the added fillip they hand the storyline. I enjoy the element of improvisation it forces on me as game master, and I really enjoy watching the players when they roll a critical: they tend to get awfully excited, which is fun.

Therefore: to the central mechanism of rolling numbers of d10 equal to your skill level, I’m adding a familiar element: 1d20. I’m calling this the ‘Kaboom! die’. A roll of 1 is bad. A roll of 20 is good.

Obviously, this still looks like a ‘ 1 in 10 is critical’ mechanism. But remember: it’s decoupled from the basic success/failure system. It’s an enhancer, not a dictator. If you don’t like the odds, you could change it to a d100 roll for the Kaboom effects, for example. However, I’m keeping it relatively simple. Roll a success plus a 20 on the Kaboom die: that’s a true critical success, with all the shiny special effects. Roll a failure plus a 20 on the Kaboom die: lucky you! You can gather up all your d10 and roll again, adding the new total to the old. In this way, characters of low skill have a chance of succeeding at really difficult tasks. Roll a success and a 1 on the Kaboom die: minimal success - no special effects or extras of any sort. Roll a failure and a 1 on the Kaboom die: true critical failure, with all the disastrous side effects and vile trappings.

So — with the ‘critical’ outcome decoupled from success or failure, we no longer have that 1-in-10 nonsense. And with the bell-curve system provided by throwing numbers of dice, rather than throwing against a linear structure, we get a subtle bias that evens things out towards the upper levels, making the game more interesting and challenging for high-level types. Of course, it does mean that highly skilled characters can pretty much wade through the lowly types... but really, that’s the kind of effect we’re after, isn’t it?

That’s my take on things. Anybody with a better head for probability: if you can kick holes in what I’m doing here, I’d be grateful.