Friday, 23 November 2012

Not yet sufficiently geeky, clearly

I've mentioned before that I really like Obsidian Portal, the roleplaying campaign management site. It's a place for real hoopy froods. If I wasn't cheap/broke I'd be a paying member and customising the hell out of my campaigns, even if I am the only one who normally looks at them. But I don't discuss it here much - my post about Alric Konrad was more about the model I'd made than what happened to him - because it's kind of bad form to contaminate the internet with spoilers for published roleplaying scenarios. Spoiling a book or movie is one thing, but the interactive nature of roleplaying games means that spoilers will actually alter the course of the plot, possibly even destroying it, so they're a much bigger deal. If it's a plot you made up yourself, it's not serious, since nobody else is likely to run the same one, unless reading your blurb inspires them to (which is a good thing!). But a professionally published scenario, used by thousands of different groups over probably many years, if not decades... Well, it'd be rude to indiscriminately plaster your experiences with it in random public places where others will be likely to run into it unexpectedly.

It should also go without saying that any player who goes out of their way to learn the contents of a published scenario that their GM is currently running for them is a diseased cock (Nexus, J. 2003. pg.20-21).

So that's why I haven't said much about my group's playing of the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But I have now started up a second campaign that I do feel more comfortable discussing in public, created for the USS Dauntless group I wrote about in yet another previous post. Unsurprisingly, this is a Star Trek roleplaying campaign, using Decipher's CODA system. Perhaps slightly more surprising is that this is a Maquis-centered game, with the players representing one small cell of Maquis at the start of their insurgency against Cardassian rule.

This is probably a pretty smart way to run a Trek campaign, as it forces the players to deal with every challenge themselves, with only relatively crappy equipment at their disposal; I've been a player and GM in several Trek (and other starship-based) games before, and there's always a temptation for the players to delegate dangerous tasks to Redshirts, which can cheapen the whole experience. Why bother to be heroic, after all, when there's always another Crewman Anonymous or Ensign Wontbemissed to do it for you? But in a Maquis game (and similar underdog formats), the player characters either take the risks themselves, or nothing gets done. It's more dramatic that way, usually. Similarly, you never want them to have an EMH. Voyager's Doctor was a great character, but few roleplayers are going to be able to duplicate that sort of performance, and it does make it unnecessary for any player character to have more than field medic training, removing one more angle of plot tension.

But the point is, this new thing is a plot "entirely" of my own devising. Inevitably with any fanon (which I guess this technically is), I will be borrowing elements from established TV series canon. But not too much. I'm probably taking more from other campaigns than from the actual TV series, with the party starting out stealing the decommissioned USS Rutan NCC-20046, the little science ship that was the focus of the first long-term campaign I successfully GMed (part of the old records of that campaign can be found here). I'm quite fond of that ship and always regretted titling its campaign "Last Voyage of the Rutan." That title is still technically valid, since the vessel currently has no official or unofficial name and the players are free to re-name it themselves.

I also intend to steal borrow Jason Green's creation, the USS Zephyr. The Zephyr played a small but dramatic role in Jason's old USS Saracen campaign, which stuck with me vividly for the last 12 years (holy fuck, we're getting old). Since those events occurred in roughly the same region and period as my new Maquis campaign, I felt it would be appropriate to give the Zephyr a belated, plagiarised encore.

Oh, one other thought: I always think miniatures are a nice-but-not-essential addition to many roleplaying games, but Star Trek ships are tricky to miniaturise, until (drum roll) I got me some Trek Clix. They're decent enough models, and we've got an Oberth-class (the Pegasus) so our bare minimum requirement is met. I've somehow safely retained the origami Rutan I made for that game back in 2005, but the new plastic one is just much more practical.

So there you have it. I'll feel free to post stuff about this new campaign (titled "Edge of Nirvana" for reasons that I hope are obvious) whenever I feel like it. Anyone who wants to track it more closely, take a look at the ST:EoN site on Obsidian Portal, as I (and perhaps one or more players) should be updating it weekly for the next couple months.

But I strongly, strongly discourage almost all of you: Don't veer off into my Enemy Within campaign. It really is only for those already in that game, and to help those intending to GM it themselves. There's little reason for anyone else to spoil it for themselves. But, now you've been warned, do whatever the hell you like. I'm not your mummy, gas-mask face.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Facebook is Not a Doctor, and Neither are You*

The internet has always been kind to intentional hoaxsters, fraudsters and quacks(ters) spreading disease and suffering through medical misinformation. Now Facebook and its social media ilk seem to offer different and harder to stop routes for such misinformation to travel, though as with a lot of social media wossnames, these are probably just online mirrors of existing offline behaviour. What's new is the speed, ease and extent of the spread.

For years, I've seen two different phenomena. The first, smaller and probably less pernicious, is the advice solicitation. Someone's got a funny ringing in their squeedly-spooch, and they want it to be better without the effort of seeing a doctor, spending money or putting pants on, so they ask their online friends for suggestions. This then leads to a flood of people reporting how their aunt's dog's previous owner's cousin's gardener had the same thing, rubbed a cat on his head, and all was well. In short, instead of telling the 'patient' to stop wasting everyone's time and either see a doctor or quit whining, every junk panacea already in that social circle gets a chance to air itself, misinforming not only the original complainer, but also any unsuspecting passers-by who happen to read it all.

The second is worse for society at large: The repeatedly-shared post, expounding on some quack theory or treatment. For whatever reasons (I'm willing to believe it's mostly with good intentions), people like to pass around warnings and recommendations from incredibly dubious sources. These are worse because they get spread to a much wider audience, sometimes repeatedly, for much longer periods.

So far, I've dealt with these sorts of posts on an ad hoc basis, digging up the relevant skeptical articles or original research and trying to convince people that claim XYZ is incorrect. I am not a doctor myself, I never offer counter-advice (other than "speak to a qualified doctor about this"), but I do point out clear flaws whenever my bullshit-detector catches something obviously suspect. For those looking for sources of that sort, here's my list of usual first stops:

But I no longer feel this will ever be sufficient. More often than not, I think I'm wasting my time. What we really need is to encourage a taboo against online amateur doctoring. Perhaps my responses in future should be "you're wrong, here's why, but more importantly, stop posting things like this at all." How do you get people to accept a taboo like that? I'm not sure, I'm not a social media guru. People get weird about expert knowledge (especially when they lack it themselves) and they get weird about their health (for obvious reasons of personal comfort and survival).

I think a good start would be getting as many people as possible to swat these sorts of posts down whenever they pop up with a brief, clear "You are not a doctor, don't pretend you are." Hopefully enough of that will put some sort of dent in the habit.

* Title may be revised on a case-by-case basis upon presentation of appropriate qualifications. Alt-med "doctors" need not apply.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Oh, Sea Shepherd...

I was working on a post about how awesome the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is, when they go and advertise this: A branded EQ Bracelet, which I should be clear from the start, is a complete con, rip-off and waste of money.

Now, I know Sea Shepherd needs money to operate, and their store is a fair enough way to raise that money. I've bought stuff from there before myself, because I feel they're worth supporting. Their area of focus is limited to sea stuff, which is clearly not the only thing worth watching, but they make an important contribution where they are acting, especially in the case of Antarctic anti-whaling operations. They're fucking awesome at that.

They're like Captain Kirk in a Bird of Prey at stopping nasty whalers.

But putting their name on another shitty placebo band? Meh. These things are one of the most stupid successful hoaxes in decades, and they're completely anti-science. One of the reasons I support Sea Shepherd is that, unlike Green Peace, they haven't rejected rationality and evidence in favour of an (increasingly pointless) PR-driven agenda. Sea Shepherd has typically remained the realistic, pragmatic and effective organisation, leaving the mere enviro-posers to hold placards outside agricultural labs.

So I'm deeply disappointed by their EQ bracelet. I hope they cancel it soon, though I'm not optimistic. On the plus side, as soon as I spotted this in my Facebook feed, I was pleased to see several other people also objecting to it. Clearly, Sea Shepherd attracts a more discerning following than a mere tree-huggers' social club.

Friday, 9 November 2012

A small experiment in ignoring

I don't like playing social politics, I try to stop myself any time I catch myself slipping into it. And I don't like declaring anyone a lost cause, cutting them off completely and forever. Perhaps I'm unreasonably optimistic. Maybe it's a result of teaching, maybe it was a pre-existing part of me that drew me towards teaching, possibly to do with others writing me off in the past, maybe something else entirely, but I feel it's everyone's responsibility to help everyone else make the best of themselves, for everyone's benefit (practical limits aside).

So what to do then when you're in a (facebook) group that's intended for like-minded people to congregate and have interesting, mutually enjoyable conversations about topics in a given field - let's say skepticism and skeptical activism - and someone joins the group who doesn't appreciate skepticism, isn't open to anyone else's ideas, only ever speaks up to add wild, off-point digressions into topics that they'd rather discuss, and not only posts the most irrelevant stuff, but actually posts whole floods of them, drowning out the actual science and skepticism posts in a skeptics' group with political ideological crap (and I've got a fucking politics degree, I normally find that interesting!), and who will then react aggressively and verbosely towards anyone who wastes time criticising them? I'm picking on one especially bad but real example out of several, but it illustrates a broader problem: What do you do with people you don't like in online groups? In the offlineyverse, there are established social protocols and instinctive signals for managing intra-group relations in voluntary associations, but many don't apply online.

In that case, a lot of our membership has simply been driven to silence, either refusing to engage with what they're seeing in the group, or ignoring the whole thing outright. This is a loss to me, when nice, interesting people have to leave to make room for tedious shit-plasterers. I'm also concerned, based on some rough membership surveys I've been taking for the last year or so, that this unpleasantness has been especially bad for chasing away our female members, who were a minority to begin with, more than the males. Others, including at times myself, have tried engaging in debate, but this has proven entirely futile. And sometimes we've even begged, "please, stop spoiling our lovely group," in a variety of phrasings, but that's never been met receptively either. Eventually, last week, I broke one of my own major facebook taboos and applied the Block button to a couple of people who'd really been ruining the group for me.

And it was wonderful! All week, I was seeing the group almost the way it was a year or so ago, when the topics were all interesting and encouraging, and so were all the people. I found myself more eager to check in there and look for new posts, even inspired to add some myself. But I decided I'd only use Block for a week, just to test it out. Today I turned the block off again, and was thoroughly disappointed to find things the same as they'd seemed before, a thick morass of tedium entirely different to what I really want from the group. The beauty of that group for me had originally been that it was full of like-minded people I could enjoy being myself around, and I also appreciated having the group there as something positive I could point potential new skeptical friends towards, to give them a taste of the community they could join. The other week, I discovered a student of mine is a budding young skeptic in the making, and I had to stop and think very hard about where to direct him for further opportunities, because our formerly-convenient facebook group would just have put him off us instantly. This little test suggests to me that it's just a few loud voices who spoiled that for me.

But what's the lesson? We can't all just ignore each other permanently and forever at the slightest disagreement. Not only is skepticism dependent on rigorous debate, avoiding echo chamber effects and embracing differences of opinion, but it's simply unavoidable that we'll all somehow piss each other the fuck off eventually. Those Shakespearean monkeys would likely have to spend a few millennia throwing the typewriters at each other's heads before they got even one sonnet finished, and I'm definitely not especially good at discouraging people from throwing typewriters, literal or proverbial, at my own head. But that's ok, there's such a thing as constructive debate, and even outside of that, we should have some margin for error and forgiveness. We are all human, after all.

How far that margin should go is, for me, the trickiest thing to judge. My over-optimistic side wants to say, "Fuck it, let's keep absolutely everyone included forever! Even Hitler could have become a nice guy if we'd had the chance to talk things over with him long enough," which is why I consider use of Block buttons a bit of a taboo. After this week of pleasant isolationism, though, I can definitely see the value in a more narrow margin.

There's probably some reasonable middle path, requiring compromises from all sides, trying to avoid both tyrannies of majority and tyrannies of minority, with blocking only left as a last resort for when someone refuses to compromise, refuses to accept that they're part of a living community in that context, and needs to respect (a word I'm normally a little wary of) the other people in that community. But it does all make me very uncomfortable. I still don't like the idea of ever blocking anyone.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Teeny Tiny Democracy

Someone with dual US-SA citizenship just said something about their US vote being worth more to them, and while we can debate the subjective and indirect aspects of that, it occurred to me that the simple maths says the opposite. There are 235.8 million eligible voters in the US versus only 21.3 million eligible voters in SA, so (assuming 100% voter turnout) 1 US vote gives you a 0.0000004% share in the running of that state, while 1 SA vote gives you a 0.0000046% share in this state. My SA vote is worth roughly 11 times as much in SA as a US vote would be worth in the US. Of course, all things being equal, there should also be 11 times as many people who share most of my views in the US, balancing that out. I'm just not sure how far from equal all things are. I certainly wouldn't call either state a properly representative democracy, but that's a very, very tricky topic for another time.

(As a side note, discussing the US is always a pain for me because of their silly habit of calling their provinces 'states'. This is tricky enough for anyone who wants to distinguish the state of Georgia from the state of Georgia, but it's extra tricky for me, because we had it hammered into us in first year politics that the correct technical term is not 'country' but 'state', so I'm perhaps more inclined than most to run into this linguistic obstacle. And don't even get me started on the American demonym problem!)

Anyway, the maths thing got me thinking about where you'd have the strongest single vote, where your 1 vote would (without cheating) count for the greatest possible percent of the whole. And obviously the answer is any decision that you get to make solo, where your 1 vote constitutes 100% of the electorate's will. Easy. Or we could insist that a democracy by definition has to include multiple voters, in which case the smallest case would be two. And there are plenty of examples of business partnerships and very small municipalities and things like that where there are very few people who get a vote. It's actually not quite such a weird situation, in reality.

But what about formal states (not states, but states!), the elections individuals can participate in at the highest level? Still a wee bit complicated. The smallest microstate by population listed on wikipedia, the Vatican, is not a democracy, so we can ignore it. The next smallest population belongs to the Republic of Nauru, with a little over 9,000 humans (or 12,000, 10 years ago; it seems they booted out a lot of foreigners in 2006, due to shrinkage in their phosphate industry). They have all the key structures of a modern democracy, with a president (acting as both head of government and head of state, which is a distinction that means a lot more when you've got a politics degree), an 18-seat parliament, a separate judiciary and, quite sensibly, no formal party system - each MP is effectively an independent, although 3 parties do exist for support purposes.

The entire Republic of Nauru.

Voting is compulsory (as it should be!) for anyone aged 20 and over, but annoyingly I can't find the exact figure of how many individuals that works out to, but let's guess it's close to half: 4,500 adult human citizens. In that case, your single Nauruan vote is worth a 0.0222222% share of control of the Nauruan government. That's 4,700 times as potent as a South African vote or 52,400 times the strength of a US vote. Holy shit, Naurauns, careful where you swing those votes! Someone could get hurt.

Of course, we generally pay more attention to democracies with large total populations, rather than those with high concentrations of electoral power per capita, which is why I literally couldn't go more than 5 minutes after waking up this morning before learning who had won yesterday's election in the US, while I had to go out of my way (a relatively small bit, thanks to the efficiency of Wikipedia) to be reminded that Nauru even exists, never mind that it's the smallest independent democracy. And yet a compare-and-contrast between the US and Nauru (just for the fun of it) yields some surprising results. Nauru is possibly more industrial per capita, though phosphate mining has plummeted in recent years, and is certainly less hospitable to most critters, leading to lower biodiversity, despite appearing to be an isolated tropical paradise. Nauruans are also statistically the fattest national population in the world, with around 95% of them classified as overweight or obese, way above the 58% of adult Americans classified the same. On the positive side, Nauru has no military of its own, and as far as I know, no intention of invading anywhere either. And they used to have a president called Ludwig Scotty, which is a name that pleases me.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Making Alric Konrad

A typical farewell party held in Alric Konrad's honour.
As mentioned recently, my group and I are playing through the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and we actually started them out a little earlier than that with the equally good (though approx. 5 times shorter and more sane) Dying of the Light campaign, which is also blessed by the touch of James Wallis. So we've been carrying on with one continuous storyline since 15 March 2010. As I publish this, I've just come home from the 50th session of that game. It's far from the longest roleplaying campaign ever, and we have been playing various other things in between too, but 50 sessions with one unbroken thread is a new personal record for me and it's pretty damn unusual for the short-attention-spanned people I usually play with. I'm inclined to celebrate this, not least because they've been 50 very fun sessions, and because we're still only roughly halfway through Enemy Within, so there's still lots more to look forward to.

Of course, player groups inevitably change over time. Some people move to Canada. Some people have job or family commitments. Some people didn't really fit in well from the start. Some people are my evil arch nemesis, plotting my downfall with every waking moment. I probably shouldn't have invited that guy. But there are always enough experienced characters left over to get the new ones up to speed, to pass the proverbial torch, and I was luckily able to attract most of the Dying of the Light crew over for a transitional episode that provided excellent continuity at the start of Enemy Within. It's worked out very, very nicely.

But there is one particular player I have to give special credit to: Alex. Over the last 50 sessions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Alex has been there for all 50. He is the non-load bearing, spongy backbone of my group, and I doubt I would have carried on preparing the game for this long without the reliability of Alex. He's also managed to keep his current character, Alric Konrad, alive and active for far longer than is probable in the Warhammer world, especially considering all the shit Alric's been through. I should be clear that Alric wasn't Alex's first character in this campaign, though. His predecessor, Peter Peters, lasting 9 sessions, was pretty similar in that he was a blatant, unapolagetic thief. But Peter Peters (Pumpkins Eaters) was executed by his own party halfway through Dying of the Light for admitting to being a Chaos-worshipper, and I think there was also something about trying to use one of his comrades as a blood sacrifice. I try to stay neutral in (admittedly valid) intra-party conflicts.

Alric Konrad had joined the party after that, as a mere tagger-on to another new character who had a much better reason for joining the party at that point. And yet Alric went on to become a much more central character, helping to foil multiple Chaos demons, both lesser and greater, and stealing more gold than the Empire is supposed to have. He and the second longest lasting character, Adelyn Zumwald (35 sessions) even managed to steal, by subterfuge, a whole fucking castle! Naturally, because this is Warhammer and not D&D, Alric isn't actually that much better off for all this. He's lost about half his wealth to disaster and robbery (by fellow party member Adelyn, primarily), he's increasingly full of persistent scars and maladies, and he's simply not welcome to show his face in half the towns he's saved. And the castle he so cunningly stole was immediately destroyed, the falling debris almost crushing his trusty barge (which was burned and sunk shortly afterwards anyway). This is Warhammer as it is meant to be played.

To formally acknowledge Alex's achievement, I sat down to make a model of Alric Konrad for him. Warhammer roleplaying has the enormous advantage that it can borrow miniatures from Warhammer Fantasy Battle (and a few smaller games, like Mordheim), and yet we've never really done much with that. I provided half a box of Empire militiamen, as the most likely generic bits for typical human adventurers, and we've always had some temporary figures slapped together roughly out of those. And where convenient, we've taken whatever figures from people's armies happened to suit a given character, with a fairly broad margin of imagination. We've had 40K orks standing in for goblins, horses for wolves (or was it vice versa?) and chess pawns for random human cultists. We're talking about a campaign that now has a cast in the literal hundreds of named NPCs, so we're not fucking custom-building the lot.

But apart from that, we've only ever had three serious figures built to represent specific characters. The first was a child I made myself, entirely out of green stuff. She was my first attempt at modelling something from scratch, and I'm reasonably pleased with her, even if I could probably do it much better now. Her little nose kept falling off and her over-sized head sagged oddly as it set, giving her as much of a rag doll look as the rag dolls she carries. The other two were Scot's 2nd and 3rd characters, Alric Reiss and Grombil, a human priest and dwarf fighting thing, made by Scot. He made good, conventional models, but didn't keep to his characters for particularly long stretches, which seemed a bit of a waste. Brother Alric Reiss, in particular, was a really nicely done model.

But I digress: Alric Konrad. I started with a simple Empire free company militiaman figure, chosen mainly for its beardless face and slightly skulking, thief-like pose. Alric's character portrait is literally Garrett from the Thief games, so I had a fair bit of modification to do. Step one, using green stuff, was to give the bald figure some basic hair and to extend the puny crossguard on his sword to better match the picture (at right) we have of the magic sword Alric acquired not too long ago (one of the few valuable items he definitely didn't steal, oddly enough). I also whittled at the blade of the sword a bit, to give it straighter sides. My crossguard is obviously too thick and chunky, but this is kind of unavoidable sometimes at this scale.

Next, I painted him up all pretty. I knew I was going to end up covering more than half of that with his cloak, but I couldn't guess exactly which parts would remain visible, and it was easier to just paint them all in one go before the cloak went on. It was tricky, with everything in shades of black. The shoes are brown-black, the pants are blue-black and the top was originally mainly green-black, until I decided some subtle silver dry-brushing might be useful for implying either stealthified metal armour, or rain-slick leather, both equally likely for Alric. The face was meant to look a little rough, but in photos I decided it was perhaps a little too rough. Also, that purple left hand? Intentional. It's a plot point, I won't spoil it for anyone.

Then came the cloak. I've made enough encloaked dwarves to know how these go, but I wanted something a bit more actiony, showing the cloak as something flexible and real, not just another layer of protection. The little flare on its right corner really pleased me, but I had to make the whole thing pretty damn thin to get it looking realistic, so I think it's likely to be the first thing to snap if anyone's ever rough with it. I decided to add the hood separately. I forget why, but it worked out well enough in the end. This view also shows off the magic partial "invisibility" effect of his sword, which the book describes as shimmering back and forth, leaving only the glowing dwarven runes on it visible.

I painted the cloak black, just to get a feel for it, and to fill in the shoulder bits that would soon be hard to reach with the hood in place, and found it really hard to cover up the green in every nook and cranny the cloak had created. There may still be some sneaky green hiding behind a knee or something. The hood came next, and it really bothered me, because hoods always worry me. They have so little defined form, and yet it's easy to say when they look wrong or unnatural. But I feel uncomfortable with real hoods in real life for similar reasons. They're just not very practical, are they? But, it's an established part of Alric's look and of thieves in general, so I did my best to shape it right.

Texturing the completed cloak was surprisingly easy (it got to be simple grey-black) and all that remained was putting the whole thing on the base I'd prepared for it, as well as fitting in the cane Alric walks with (ever since that building-sized crab crushed his leg...). The cane is the whole reason I'd chosen that rare, plain, unoccupied left hand, quite unusual among miniatures where nearly everyone seems to be ambidextrous. I guess now it is occupied. The cane itself was clipped from a dwarf standard's pole, then whittled into a more sticky shape. I "subtly" prodded Alex several times about the design of his cane, to make sure I'd build it right, but it seems all the complex stuff about it is... hidden. You'll also note that left hand ain't purple no more. Another plot development.

A final touch-up cleaned up some rough patches, especially the face, which I'd neglected til the very end. He also grew a silver ring, quite plain-lookin' at this scale, but which in the game marks him as a member of the Amethyst Order, which will mean something to those it means it to, and nothing to those it doesn't. It was significant enough that I added it as a modelled feature.

For display purposes, I took a clear dice box and glued a coin to the bottom of it, then green stuffed a small magnet under Alric's base. Not only will this keep him dust and scratch free, but it should also offer some protection against bumps and small drops, making it possible for Alric to travel with Alex to away games, although historically we've played at Alex's place most often. There's also amusement in having the thief sitting on top of a 'giant' piece of money.

And for anyone interested in the base, it's green stuff-textured, with a pretty simple, realistic paint job, and with slight indentations made with his feet right at the start, so I could reliably get him back into the correct position again every time. Cobblestones make the most sense for Alric's largely urban shenanigans, but making it brown rather than grey makes it (hopefully) fit better in rural settings too, and even on the wooden deck of a boat, such as the party's previous vessel, the Ungenannt, or perhaps one day it's as yet unbuilt, unnamed successor.