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Topics - Ian Absentia

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Design, Development, and Gameplay / Animal Intelligence
« on: February 22, 2010, 12:13:32 AM »
This is for all of you hunters, trackers, lion tamers, and wild animal trainers out there.  And, of course, you RPG-playing armchair enthusiasts, too.

What are the parameters of the intelligence and skills of a wild animal?  One would assume that most qualities would be instinctive, but what others might be learned through social contact, too?  How does an animal fight?  How does it track or be aware that it is being stalked?


Design, Development, and Gameplay / [Mazes & Minotaurs] Non-Greek Heroes
« on: February 15, 2010, 04:51:26 PM »
I'm currently toying with the notion of starting a Mazes & Minotaurs campaign, set in the pseudo-Ancient-Mediterranean world of Mythika.  I know that some of my potential players will eschew the Greek heroes in favor of the barbaroi, or Barbarians.  In the game world, Barbarians are assumed to come from Hyperborea, but it occurs to me that there are plenty of other options on the other side of the Middle Sea.  Unfortunately, since the ancient Greeks were so close-minded about recognising the achievements of anyone who wasn't Greek or Trojan, or at least Scythian, I'm at a loss to find good examples of heroes from these other regions.  I'm hoping that some of you might be able to help me with some ideas.

Here are the regions:

The Land of the Sun - A parallel to the Middle East; the Phoenicians.  Here, at least, I can think of the biblical hero Samson, who corresponds roughly to the right time period.  There's Gilgamesh and Enkidu, too, though they're much more "ancient" than I'm looking for.

Midia - North Africa, Carthage.

The Desert Kingdom - Egypt.

Charybdia - West Africa; hot, savage jungles.

I'm not looking for hard, fast, historical figures, but regional inspiration for "re-skinned" heroes of the ancient Mediterranean.


Help Desk / WTF: quynhndnc
« on: February 02, 2010, 10:35:09 PM »
Why hasn't this jackass "quynhndnc" been deep-sixed yet?


I've mentioned my son before.  He's 10 years old and plays "D&D".  I use the ellipses because the game that he and his friends play is, from what I can gather, a wild-ass, freeform, munchkinised encounter therapy session that is, for all intents and purposes, diceless.  Frankly, it sounds like a blast.  I mention my son again because he knocked me for a loop just the other day.

He and his mates at school are all mad for the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series of novels.  The books seem to be a lot of fun, sort of an American Gods for the young set, and all the kids are looking forward to the upcoming movie.  So mad are they for these books that my son and his classmates have spontaneously developed a sort of freeform LARP based on the novels, where they all choose up divine parentage and one-up each other in demi-godly fashion.  After my son described how they play their game, I thought about it, then offered to help him develop a more structured RPG format that they could play.  He thought it sounded like a fantastic idea and was sure that his friends would love it.

So, as we began bashing out the basics, I proposed a character creation system where the players get to choose their divine ancestry from among several cultural pantheons, and then start with some basic powers and.... He cut me off there.  What fun is it, he asked rhetorically, if you know what you are from the start?  Instead, he suggested, characters should start our normal, with no powers, and only later discover who their divine ancestor was.  Furthermore, he insisted, the ancestor god should be determined randomly -- no good just picking your favorite; that's not how it was done in the book.  And you don't get powers right away, either; you earn those as you go up in "levels".

Like I stated above, he knocked me for a loop.  So accustomed have I become to players designing their characters to suit their tastes in wish fulfillment, I hadn't considered that a bunch of 5th graders might prefer a non-predetermined path of discovery.  So, that's the way we're taking it.


Play by Post Games / [1e Gamma World] Interest?
« on: January 30, 2010, 07:46:37 PM »
Just a day before I read the recent announcement of a new edition of Gamma World, I impulsively pulled my old 1st edition box off the shelf for a look-see.  It's basic, it's a little crude, it's totally wonky (Telekinetic Arm? WTF?), but it's super-cool.  I also marvelled at my old character class write-ups for Pure Strain Humans -- while there is level progression in 1e GW, it's not class-based, and PSHs get totally hosed on power levels, so I made PSH character classes based on Thundarr the Barbarian.

So, is anyone game?  I'm totally open to character types, races, and backgrounds, just like we used to do it in the old days.  (Hell, I had a friend with a telekinetically levitating sperm whale once.)  Start out in the ruins of a burnt-out village, a piece of an "Ancient" artifact, and a rumor, and see where it goes from there.

I'd be playing with the classic 1e rules, and I can talk anyone who doesn't have the rules through character generation.  Or, as I just discovered, you can look at them here online!  Tell me how you like it, baby.


Media and Inspiration / Science: Our world may be a giant hologram
« on: January 16, 2009, 05:59:43 PM »
Not to be outdone by KenHR, this article in the New Scientist suggests the possibility that all that we see or seem may be a 3-dimensional projection of events occurring on a 2-dimensional surface at the edge of the universe.
DRIVING through the countryside south of Hanover, it would be easy to miss the GEO600 experiment. From the outside, it doesn't look much: in the corner of a field stands an assortment of boxy temporary buildings, from which two long trenches emerge, at a right angle to each other, covered with corrugated iron. Underneath the metal sheets, however, lies a detector that stretches for 600 metres.

For the past seven years, this German set-up has been looking for gravitational waves - ripples in space-time thrown off by super-dense astronomical objects such as neutron stars and black holes. GEO600 has not detected any gravitational waves so far, but it might inadvertently have made the most important discovery in physics for half a century.

For many months, the GEO600 team-members had been scratching their heads over inexplicable noise that is plaguing their giant detector. Then, out of the blue, a researcher approached them with an explanation. In fact, he had even predicted the noise before he knew they were detecting it. According to Craig Hogan, a physicist at the Fermilab particle physics lab in Batavia, Illinois, GEO600 has stumbled upon the fundamental limit of space-time - the point where space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and instead dissolves into "grains", just as a newspaper photograph dissolves into dots as you zoom in. "It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time," says Hogan.

If this doesn't blow your socks off, then Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab's Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: "If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram."

The idea that we live in a hologram probably sounds absurd, but it is a natural extension of our best understanding of black holes, and something with a pretty firm theoretical footing. It has also been surprisingly helpful for physicists wrestling with theories of how the universe works at its most fundamental level.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard 't Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

The "holographic principle" challenges our sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you woke up, brushed your teeth and are reading this article because of something happening on the boundary of the universe. No one knows what it would mean for us if we really do live in a hologram, yet theorists have good reasons to believe that many aspects of the holographic principle are true.

Susskind and 't Hooft's remarkable idea was motivated by ground-breaking work on black holes by Jacob Bekenstein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel and Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge. In the mid-1970s, Hawking showed that black holes are in fact not entirely "black" but instead slowly emit radiation, which causes them to evaporate and eventually disappear. This poses a puzzle, because Hawking radiation does not convey any information about the interior of a black hole. When the black hole has gone, all the information about the star that collapsed to form the black hole has vanished, which contradicts the widely affirmed principle that information cannot be destroyed. This is known as the black hole information paradox.

Bekenstein's work provided an important clue in resolving the paradox. He discovered that a black hole's entropy - which is synonymous with its information content - is proportional to the surface area of its event horizon. This is the theoretical surface that cloaks the black hole and marks the point of no return for infalling matter or light. Theorists have since shown that microscopic quantum ripples at the event horizon can encode the information inside the black hole, so there is no mysterious information loss as the black hole evaporates.

Crucially, this provides a deep physical insight: the 3D information about a precursor star can be completely encoded in the 2D horizon of the subsequent black hole - not unlike the 3D image of an object being encoded in a 2D hologram. Susskind and 't Hooft extended the insight to the universe as a whole on the basis that the cosmos has a horizon too - the boundary from beyond which light has not had time to reach us in the 13.7-billion-year lifespan of the universe. What's more, work by several string theorists, most notably Juan Maldacena at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has confirmed that the idea is on the right track. He showed that the physics inside a hypothetical universe with five dimensions and shaped like a Pringle is the same as the physics taking place on the four-dimensional boundary.

According to Hogan, the holographic principle radically changes our picture of space-time. Theoretical physicists have long believed that quantum effects will cause space-time to convulse wildly on the tiniest scales. At this magnification, the fabric of space-time becomes grainy and is ultimately made of tiny units rather like pixels, but a hundred billion billion times smaller than a proton. This distance is known as the Planck length, a mere 10-35 metres. The Planck length is far beyond the reach of any conceivable experiment, so nobody dared dream that the graininess of space-time might be discernable.

That is, not until Hogan realised that the holographic principle changes everything. If space-time is a grainy hologram, then you can think of the universe as a sphere whose outer surface is papered in Planck length-sized squares, each containing one bit of information. The holographic principle says that the amount of information papering the outside must match the number of bits contained inside the volume of the universe.

Since the volume of the spherical universe is much bigger than its outer surface, how could this be true? Hogan realised that in order to have the same number of bits inside the universe as on the boundary, the world inside must be made up of grains bigger than the Planck length. "Or, to put it another way, a holographic universe is blurry," says Hogan.

This is good news for anyone trying to probe the smallest unit of space-time. "Contrary to all expectations, it brings its microscopic quantum structure within reach of current experiments," says Hogan. So while the Planck length is too small for experiments to detect, the holographic "projection" of that graininess could be much, much larger, at around 10-16 metres. "If you lived inside a hologram, you could tell by measuring the blurring," he says.

When Hogan first realised this, he wondered if any experiment might be able to detect the holographic blurriness of space-time. That's where GEO600 comes in.

Gravitational wave detectors like GEO600 are essentially fantastically sensitive rulers. The idea is that if a gravitational wave passes through GEO600, it will alternately stretch space in one direction and squeeze it in another. To measure this, the GEO600 team fires a single laser through a half-silvered mirror called a beam splitter. This divides the light into two beams, which pass down the instrument's 600-metre perpendicular arms and bounce back again. The returning light beams merge together at the beam splitter and create an interference pattern of light and dark regions where the light waves either cancel out or reinforce each other. Any shift in the position of those regions tells you that the relative lengths of the arms has changed.

"The key thing is that such experiments are sensitive to changes in the length of the rulers that are far smaller than the diameter of a proton," says Hogan.

So would they be able to detect a holographic projection of grainy space-time? Of the five gravitational wave detectors around the world, Hogan realised that the Anglo-German GEO600 experiment ought to be the most sensitive to what he had in mind. He predicted that if the experiment's beam splitter is buffeted by the quantum convulsions of space-time, this will show up in its measurements (Physical Review D, vol 77, p 104031). "This random jitter would cause noise in the laser light signal," says Hogan.

In June he sent his prediction to the GEO600 team. "Incredibly, I discovered that the experiment was picking up unexpected noise," says Hogan. GEO600's principal investigator Karsten Danzmann of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany, and also the University of Hanover, admits that the excess noise, with frequencies of between 300 and 1500 hertz, had been bothering the team for a long time. He replied to Hogan and sent him a plot of the noise. "It looked exactly the same as my prediction," says Hogan. "It was as if the beam splitter had an extra sideways jitter."

Incredibly, the experiment was picking up unexpected noise - as if quantum convulsions were causing an extra sideways jitter
No one - including Hogan - is yet claiming that GEO600 has found evidence that we live in a holographic universe. It is far too soon to say. "There could still be a mundane source of the noise," Hogan admits.

Gravitational-wave detectors are extremely sensitive, so those who operate them have to work harder than most to rule out noise. They have to take into account passing clouds, distant traffic, seismological rumbles and many, many other sources that could mask a real signal. "The daily business of improving the sensitivity of these experiments always throws up some excess noise," says Danzmann. "We work to identify its cause, get rid of it and tackle the next source of excess noise." At present there are no clear candidate sources for the noise GEO600 is experiencing. "In this respect I would consider the present situation unpleasant, but not really worrying."

For a while, the GEO600 team thought the noise Hogan was interested in was caused by fluctuations in temperature across the beam splitter. However, the team worked out that this could account for only one-third of the noise at most.

Danzmann says several planned upgrades should improve the sensitivity of GEO600 and eliminate some possible experimental sources of excess noise. "If the noise remains where it is now after these measures, then we have to think again," he says.

If GEO600 really has discovered holographic noise from quantum convulsions of space-time, then it presents a double-edged sword for gravitational wave researchers. One on hand, the noise will handicap their attempts to detect gravitational waves. On the other, it could represent an even more fundamental discovery.

Such a situation would not be unprecedented in physics. Giant detectors built to look for a hypothetical form of radioactivity in which protons decay never found such a thing. Instead, they discovered that neutrinos can change from one type into another - arguably more important because it could tell us how the universe came to be filled with matter and not antimatter (New Scientist, 12 April 2008, p 26).

It would be ironic if an instrument built to detect something as vast as astrophysical sources of gravitational waves inadvertently detected the minuscule graininess of space-time. "Speaking as a fundamental physicist, I see discovering holographic noise as far more interesting," says Hogan.

Small price to pay

Despite the fact that if Hogan is right, and holographic noise will spoil GEO600's ability to detect gravitational waves, Danzmann is upbeat. "Even if it limits GEO600's sensitivity in some frequency range, it would be a price we would be happy to pay in return for the first detection of the graininess of space-time." he says. "You bet we would be pleased. It would be one of the most remarkable discoveries in a long time."

However Danzmann is cautious about Hogan's proposal and believes more theoretical work needs to be done. "It's intriguing," he says. "But it's not really a theory yet, more just an idea." Like many others, Danzmann agrees it is too early to make any definitive claims. "Let's wait and see," he says. "We think it's at least a year too early to get excited."

The longer the puzzle remains, however, the stronger the motivation becomes to build a dedicated instrument to probe holographic noise. John Cramer of the University of Washington in Seattle agrees. It was a "lucky accident" that Hogan's predictions could be connected to the GEO600 experiment, he says. "It seems clear that much better experimental investigations could be mounted if they were focused specifically on the measurement and characterisation of holographic noise and related phenomena."

One possibility, according to Hogan, would be to use a device called an atom interferometer. These operate using the same principle as laser-based detectors but use beams made of ultracold atoms rather than laser light. Because atoms can behave as waves with a much smaller wavelength than light, atom interferometers are significantly smaller and therefore cheaper to build than their gravitational-wave-detector counterparts.

So what would it mean it if holographic noise has been found? Cramer likens it to the discovery of unexpected noise by an antenna at Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1964. That noise turned out to be the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow of the big bang fireball. "Not only did it earn Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson a Nobel prize, but it confirmed the big bang and opened up a whole field of cosmology," says Cramer.

Hogan is more specific. "Forget Quantum of Solace, we would have directly observed the quantum of time," says Hogan. "It's the smallest possible interval of time - the Planck length divided by the speed of light."

More importantly, confirming the holographic principle would be a big help to researchers trying to unite quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity. Today the most popular approach to quantum gravity is string theory, which researchers hope could describe happenings in the universe at the most fundamental level. But it is not the only show in town. "Holographic space-time is used in certain approaches to quantising gravity that have a strong connection to string theory," says Cramer. "Consequently, some quantum gravity theories might be falsified and others reinforced."

Hogan agrees that if the holographic principle is confirmed, it rules out all approaches to quantum gravity that do not incorporate the holographic principle. Conversely, it would be a boost for those that do - including some derived from string theory and something called matrix theory. "Ultimately, we may have our first indication of how space-time emerges out of quantum theory." As serendipitous discoveries go, it's hard to get more ground-breaking than that
Wild stuff.


Media and Inspiration / [Smallville] Love the outfits, hate the soap
« on: January 16, 2009, 01:43:46 PM »
Last night I was watching one of the few episodes of Smallville I've ever seen.  Frankly, I don't much enjoy the show -- all of that post-teen, posturing, soap-opera-ish horseshit bores me to tears and irritates my bowels.  However, I really like the sensibilities of the costumes.  The general themes of the characters' classic costumes are all there, but cast in terms of sensible, contemporary clothing.  Superman wear jeans, a bright blue t-shirt, and a bright red windbreaker; Aquaman wears an orange rashguard over green swim trunks; the Flash wears a bright red t-shirt with a simple lightning bolt on it; the Green Arrow wears a green jacket.  Recognisable and cool.  Last night's episode featured the original three of the Legion of Superheroes.  Cosmic Boy had a black jacket with four round metal disks around the collar, Lightning Lad had a blue jacket with two small lightning bolts on the collar, and Saturn Girl wore a red jacket over a white t-shirt with a Saturn-shaped appliqué.

This reminds me of Matt Wagner's Mage comic, where legendary heroes all wore simple, contemporary clothes that featured some iconic symbol of the ancient hero they represented.  I have to wonder if the producers of Smallville had this in mind when designing the costumes.


Design, Development, and Gameplay / Bad Statistics
« on: November 19, 2008, 03:01:27 PM »
This is more of a brief rant than a full-fledged discussion topic.

I hate bad statistics.  Or, put another way, a little knowledge can be dangerous.

I was reading through an otherwise good (if dangerously Narrative) roleplaying game I won in a contest recently, and I got to the following passage explaining the statistics of rolling a single d12:
The Narrator should keep in mind that a modest Virtue (3) should succeed in an average task requiring a roll about half the time. Let’s work backwards from a successful roll (i.e., 13) and see what modifier would be required to allow a Virtue of 3 to succeed half the time. Since an average roll on a d12 is about 7 (6.5 actually), a good base modifier for an average task is +3 or +4 to insure those kinds of odds...
I was slapping my forehead red.  Of course, the average roll on a d12 -- or any single die -- is even odds for any single face.  D'uh!  You don't start to get "average" results until you combine the result of two or more dice.  What the author was referring to is the median, an awfully basic element of statistics, and it occurs no more regularly than 1 or 12, or any of the other possible numbers.  Why didn't the author realise this?  Why did no one point this out before the book went to print?

Yeah, sure, it's kind of a minor point, but if you're going to work with numbers, really, really try to understand what the numbers mean and how they work.


[Edit:  Oops.  I left off part of the quoted passage.]

Media and Inspiration / One Laptop Per Child
« on: November 18, 2008, 05:53:34 PM »
I know this is going to be a tight holiday season, but I figured this is a fine thing to remind people in a position to take advantage of it:  One Laptop Per Child.  The "Give One, Get One" program is fantastic.


Media and Inspiration / Marvel Universe, c. 1989
« on: September 10, 2008, 12:43:08 AM »
I'm starting a new game campaign soon, a superhero game using Bruce Ferrie's adaptation of the HeroQuest rules.  Recently, my daughter has been reading an issue of the Justice League Unlimited comic with some of the Infinity Inc. characters (sons and daughters of The Justice Society of America) and both kids have been watching Next Avengers, which deals with the children of the classic Avengers team.  I myself have been re-reading Kingdom Come, which features many new heroes who are children of the classics.  I'm kind of digging this second generation of heroes thing, and I'd like that to be the theme for a campaign.

Now, I used to read Marvel comics, pretty much to the exclusion of DC, right up until the late '80s.  The last I recall of reading Marvel comics was probably about 1989, shortly before the X-Men splintered off into two teams with two titles.  So it occurred to me that 1989 would be a great jumping-off point for an alternate universe game campaign.  Moving things along in real time (as opposed to the Eternal Now time of comics), almost two decades have passed, fully time for a new generation of young heroes to emerge, many of them sons and daughters of the established heroes (and villains) of 1989.

So, those of you who remember this era in comics, help me recall what was going on in the Marvel Universe as of 1989.  My focus was mostly on the X-Men, but I'd like to know what was happening with the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, etc.  Here's what I recall so far:
  • The Mutant Massacre happened a few years ago, and tensions were reaching a peak in the mutant-apartheid nation of Genosha.
  • X-Factor had been revealed as the original X-Men and were re-integrating with the main X-Men team.
  • The Hulk had devolved from his unified, stable personality and reverted to his original, brutal, grey form.
Damns, I recall less than I'd thought.  I know that I picked up a few storylines from the early '90s, too, and that stuff starts confusing things.  Can anyone else help me establish the state of affairs in the MU c. 1989?


Media and Inspiration / Brazilian Superhero Design Program
« on: September 09, 2008, 08:21:48 PM »
G'ah.  I know we discussed this online superhero costume design program at some point over the last year, but damns if I can find it now.  Do any of you recall it?  It:
  • Was from Brazil, and in Portuguese
  • Used stock character outlines, to which you'd add features and colors
  • Was designed using Timm-styled characters
  • Was just begging for a legal injunction from Time-Warner to stop using DC characters in its promo material
  • Was free
  • Was very, very cool
Can anyone help me find this thing again?


Media and Inspiration / Google Chrome
« on: September 06, 2008, 12:40:04 PM »
I finally had enough downtime this morning to download the new beta of Google Chrome.  In fact, this post is one of the first uses to which I've put it.  My impressions so far:
  • Fast. Really, noticeably faster than IE
  • Clean looking
  • A counter-point to "clean looking", user controls aren't entirely intuitive -- Where are my imported bookmarks?
  • Opens new tabs automatically instead of new windows
  • Allows me to customise the appearance of individual web pages
  • Performs spell-check automatically
It reminds me a lot of when Firefox first came out.  I dropped IE entirely for Firefox, but when I migrated almost exclusively to a work computer I went back to IE out of habit.  Like Firefox, Chrome is clean and fast, not bogged down in a lot of the hard-programmed chug-chug of IE.  I'm interested to see if Chrome will support third party themes the way Firefox does.

Has anyone else given Chrome a go?


[Edit: D'uh.  Add integrated Google search to the list.  That's a nice feature.]

Media and Inspiration / Let's hear it for HYDROGEN!
« on: August 25, 2008, 07:29:05 PM »
Dig on this:

Here's a little of the story...
LOS ANGELES - Hydrogen fuel cell cars from nine automakers completed a 13-day cross-country trip this weekend, in the first such mass US crossing for vehicles powered by a zero-emission technology still in its infancy.
As firsts go, the event, which ran from Portland, Maine, to to the Los Angeles Coliseum, probably would not qualify for the record books. There were stretches without hydrogen fueling stations when the vehicles were carried on flatbed trucks, the longest from Rolla, Missouri, to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But then one of the goals of the "Hydrogen Road Tour '08" was to demonstrate the need to build more fueling stations if the nascent technology is to develop, said Paul Brubaker, administrator for research and innovative technology for the US Department of Transportation.
Biodiesel isn't the answer (though I like using it in the meantime).  Hybrid gas/electric isn't the answer.  So, hydrogen?


I'm currently writing the character generation procedure for a contemporary-era, real-world game I've been working on for some time.  I need help with a rather fundamental question.  Here's the situation...

The character creation system offers personal experience for the character from among 10 detailed careers, four of which are military (army, navy, marines, air force).  In the course of random character generation, a character may end up with experience in as many as five different careers -- statistically, this would be rare, and most characters will have experience in only two, maybe three careers.  So, it's feasible that a character could end up with career experience in all four branches of the military.

Now, I know that it's not unheard of for someone to serve in two different branches, usually through separate enlistments, but would it even be possible to serve in all four branches?  How improbable would it be to serve in three?  What are the conceivable circumstances for serving in more than one branch?  I mentioned multiple enlistments above, but what about transfers?


Media and Inspiration / Skinny Tie Alert! - The Pinker Tones
« on: July 23, 2008, 01:23:03 AM »
Dr. Rotwang! -- I had you in mind in particular.  I thought you might enjoy The Pinker Tones.  Skinny ties?  Check.  Mirrored visor glasses?  Check.  Electronica/Disco beat? Check.  En Castellano et Catalan?  Check!

They're an electronic pop/disco/club duo from Barcelona, and they're a) hilarious, b) really, really good. "S.E.X.Y. R.O.B.O.T." is a gas.


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