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Three-Time Loser

I got the Black Adder series. All four seasons, plus a fifth DVD of supplemental material, are available in one box at our local public library. I’d seen a couple episodes before, and never understood what all the fuss was about. But it’s certainly popular in the geek crowd, so when my eye fell across it on the shelves at our local public library, I figured what the hell, give ’em a try. Maybe in context, with a chance to know the characters and learn any running gags I’ll learn what I’ve been missing.

I haven’t been missing anything. Watched the whole first season and an episode from each of the other seasons, and didn’t laugh once. Sorry, geek crowd: Black Adder is stupid. And here’s why:

It always, always makes a beeline for the cheap laugh. By “cheap laugh,” I don’t mean potty humor, although there’s plenty of that, too. I mean the most obvious punchline directed at the most obvious target. Atkinson’s Adder, originally Prince Edmund, is supposed to be vain and venal, a schemer ultimately skewered by his own cunning schemes. The problem is, he’s vain, and venal, and ugly, and cowardly, and clumsy, and vapid, and sexually inadequate, and infantile, and disorganized, and flatulent and transparent, and held in contempt by everyone, at all levels of society, and, and, and… He can’t fail grandly because he never gets the chance; eager to get to the quick joke, the writers bury him beneath a dozen small failures before he even gets close to a grand one.

Were the Black Adder to approach the Earl of Blenchwick with the intention of enlisting his aid in assassinating an heir with a higher claim to the throne, the Earl is likely simply to turn on him and announce, “Get away from me, you horrible little tit! I never liked you, and you smell of horse dung.” (Ha, ha.) Preferably within earshot of a half dozen onlookers. After which Edmund, thoroughly humiliated but too craven to retort, makes a face, agrees, and minces away. Well, okay. Abuse, done right, could be funny…but only if it’s done right. An insult like that requires (at a minimum!) shock value, which is impossible when the Earl is the seventh nobleman in a row to abuse Edmund on sight. Worse, it squelches the “cunning plan,” which we’ll never see it crash in ruin around the Black Adder because it never gets launched in the first place.

If comedy is timing, then surely the build-up is a vital part of comedy, and there’s no build-up to a joke in Black Adder, just a straight dive into humiliation, over and over and over again. It gets old fast, especially when it wasn’t funny in the first place.

Dilemma of FATE

Dave loaned me his copy of Legends of Anglerre, the fantasy incarnation of the FATE RPG. Predictably, LoA varies from other FATE titles—not just by addition of rules specific to the setting, but in rules one might expect them to share. This variation is born of an open gaming license and a do-it-yourself attitude.

There’s nothing seriously wrong with that variation. FATE is, after all, a fairly simple system, only growing complex for players who roll up their sleeves and choose to accept the invitation munge around in the mechanics. Players who don’t want to dig into the game’s guts can just take whatever setting they like and adopt its rules wholesale, confident that those rules should work at least adequately. And the option of mixing and matching different rules is available for those who do, which can be especially helpful for those who want to use FATE in a setting for which there is no published rule set.

It does, however, carry a frustration for players who do choose to dig around and create the specific set of rules they want—which, given the nature of FATE, is going to be high. I want to use FATE rules for my next campaign, something in an Arabian Nights vein. As a system geek, I want to employ the specific rule variants that will produce the most Arabian Nights game possible. Yet, with a bare minimum of experience with FATE—four sessions of half-baked adventure meant more to give the system a test than to stand on its own—I have no way to judge this question.

In particular, different FATE versions take different approaches to the balance between three important player resources: aspects, flavor-text which defines a PC and may grant bonuses or penalties when relevant; stunts, which are very specialized abilities defined primarily by mechanics, and “refresh,” the starting pool of fate points which may be used to fuel the action—notably including the ability to activate aspects in a variety of ways. Spirit of the Century offers a fixed number of aspects, a fixed number of stunts, and a fixed refresh. The Dresden Files offers a fixed number of aspects, sets the refresh equal to that number, and reduces refresh by one for each stunt a player takes, trading free will (embodied as plot independence or “humanity”) for power. Legends of Anglerre offers an initial number of aspects and stunts, which grow as the campaign progresses, and allows refresh to vary, as long as it remains no greater than the number of stunts.

All of these approaches relating refresh to aspects and stunts, and others as well, might work just fine for any given campaign. Or they might not. Or they all might work passably, but only one truly well. I believe in the power of good rules to make a good game great, and I care about adopting the best rules possible to represent my game world. Yet, at the rate of a year or more per campaign, and three to five players all wanting their turn behind the figurative, GM screen, how is a system geek to test the possibilities quickly enough to make a good decision at all, much less before the hot new game comes along?

Turn the Page

PC Gamer magazine is trying something new. A few weeks ago, I got email announcing that my “online copy” of this month’s issue was available online. I was somewhat concerned: did this mean our copy was available in addition to, or instead of, the print copy our subscription had paid for? Were we still getting a print copy in the mail? Did it mean I would have to go through some kind of rigamarole to inform them that, yes, I still wanted one? Did it mean they aimed at phasing out print entirely? The email was vexingly mum on the subject. Busy with other things, I set the matter aside, and it became moot when our print copy arrived a few days later. Still unanswered is the question of whether print will be discontinued entirely somewhere down the road, after customers have been market-tested.

Again yesterday, email informed me that my online copy is available. This time I skimmed it online, which answers a question I’d only pondered in the abstract before. Like many readers, I like the physicality of a book—or in this case, magazine—over electronic screens. But how much of this preference is materially justified, and how much merely another example of preferring the formats we grow up with?

Answer: some of both. I mean, I still see no real cause to complain about the Kindle and similar electronic books, not beyond “it doesn’t feel like a book in my hands!” (Well, okay, fingerprints on the screen. Not a deal-breaker.) But reading my magazine online was definitely an inferior experience.

It was a lot more work, for one thing. Unless the page is sized perfectly to the screen, and the screen is sufficiently large, reading means clicking and scrolling the pages around to reveal the next block of text, a job that you can handle simply by flicking your eyes across a printed page. Also zooming in to read, zooming out to select pages. Nor can I read the magazine from a comfy chair. Reading business documents—searching job applications, contacting fellow students by email, shopping for plane tickets—on a desktop computer is entirely appropriate; reading a book or magazine strictly for pleasure should be portable: desk-free, outlet-free, battery-free, and available in a variety of postures and positions. And, though this could not be said generally of all publication, the online version of PC Gamer suffered from being designed for print and ported to pdf: the eye did not slide naturally over the page layout, but fumbled awkwardly for the right spot to start reading and then again for the right spot to click on to the next page. It’s hard to take in picture and caption at once, and especially to take in a broader gestalt of multiple images captured from a single game.

Online reading is the way of the future, and we’d better get used to it; kids growing up comfortable with various e-readers will combine with lower production costs to reduce print to a nice market. That’s okay. It’s okay even if I and other middle-aged fossils fail to make the transition. Shortcomings will eventually be overcome. But it’s not going to happen until electronic publishers learn to reproduce or circumvent all the small but irritating ways e-reading fails to deliver the print experience; simply turning print pages into pdfs isn’t enough. And until they do, I remain leery of publishers pushing the new electronic format upon us, free online copy or not.

Livin’ Magnum

In Hawaii, I succumbed to temptation and bought myself a Hawaiian shirt, callow and touristy though the decision may have been. Yesterday I tried it on, fresh out of the wash.

And y’know? Having tried it on, I really like it. And, to Eileene’s horror, she likes it, too—on me, that is. Printed in a quiet, pale maroon rather than a garish blaze of tropicals, it strikes just the right balance of informality and self-restraint: casual without being gauche. It’s a shirt for someone comfortable in his own skin, as well as his own shirt. So we’re agreed that it suits my personality; it looks right on me. A shame that the “me” so admirably matched should be a middle-aged white male growing a pot belly and lacking in fashion sense, but hey. There’s more to life than keeping up with somber New York City chic.

Voice of America

I came to this rather circuitously. First a fellow math teacher tweeted a link to the YouTube video “Should Math be Taught in Our Schools?” It’s tongue-in-cheek—I say this because not everyone is sure it’s a joke—but it is disturbingly similar to the YouTube video it satirizes, reporting Miss USA contestents’ thoughts on whether evolution shoud be taught in our schools, or, more accurately, plays recordings of several contestants whose answer was not “Of course it should. Duh!”

As you might expect, the contestants seeming to argue either that evolution should be dropped from the curriculum, or taught as a co-equal scientific theory to creationism “and let people [students] decide for themselves” came predominantly from conservative “red” states, and the more outspoken the anti-evolutionary sentiments came from the deep South. (I say “seeming to argue” because many of the responses included a fair degree of Sarah Palin-esque garbling, so it’s hard to be sure just what the contestant believes…) One has to wonder whether the anti-evolution contestants would also argue that we should teach fascism alongside democracy, or communism alongside market theory, also to let people decide for themselves, or if it’s only their own biblical beliefs that should be exempt from intellectual challenge.

But that’s not really my point. These answers, although foolish and self-indulgent and eager to promote ignorance, are hardly different from the springs of anti-intellectualism one finds throughout American culture, rising from deep reservoirs of tribalism and faith. The interesting bit lies in poster OnKneesForJesus3’s invitation to learn from “other highly intelligent people” discussing evolution. Really? Other highly intelligent people?

Now, being a Miss USA contestant doesn’t necessarily make one stupid; some beauty queens are quite bright. But these gals are not among them. And I gotta say, if you’ve decided to seek intellectual growth and academic direction from others? And you pass up scientists and scholars? To learn from Miss USA contestants? Who speak in questions? You’re doing it wrong.

Noodles to Go

Amazon may be bad news for traditional book stores. Unless the internet learns better to reproduce the process of browsing—the freedom to sample books where we like rather than a given selection, the ability to feel a book’s weight and construction as well as sample its content, the ability to browse an entire shelf at a glance, rather than browsing one link at a time—we’ll lose something valuable as Amazon drives more than Borders out of business.

But when it comes to music or video sales, I regret nothing. Through Amazon, we recently got two videos. We might still get a replacement copy of The Incredibles from Best Buy without much trouble, but Tampopo is tough to find, and some shows I’ve treasured are rare still.. We’re watching it now, and it’s still wonderful. Volume makes rarer titles economical for Amazon in a way that even large chains can’t duplicate, and I’m grateful to be able to get titles out of the mainstream.

Now if only I could get good, genuine ramen with the same ease. Like everyone else, I watch Tampopo and want ramen.


Last night we watched the movie version of Whiteout. I didn’t expect much from it, since I vaguely remembered it getting panned, but we bought it used for $1 at Blockbuster, and figured we had nothing to lose. Just a second, let me check on that…yes, it got panned. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 7%, which strikes me as rather harsh. It proved bad, but not that bad. A bland and stupid thriller set in and around the antarctic McMurdo research facility.

Which is a shame, because the comic book upon which it’s based is top-notch. More specifically, volume I is—there was a sequel that simply doesn’t stand up. Picture the opening page, divided into four narrow, horizontal panels featuring a plane slowly landing. A series of narrator’s boxes read, panel by panel, “Bottom of the world. Antarctica. The ice. No place to go but up.” Now turn the page. The next narrator’s box, reading “But when you hit bottom, you can always start digging,” is engulfed in a big, two-page splash. Someone in a parka kneels over a body half-buried in snow, while another person standing nearby in his own parka remarks, “Hell of a place to die, huh Marshal?” If you can see those first three pages without feeling the hooks sinking in, you have no soul.

Marshal Carrie Stetko has to solve the murder before the annual personnel change before the arrival of the antarctic winter, battling the ferocious elements as much as the killer. Also, she has to grapple with her own demons, the stigma of exile by the service to McMurdo for botching an earlier assignment, the stigma of being female in a very stag environment, and the currents of cross-purposes in the multinational environment, especially those of friendly (?) British agent Lily Sharpe. But it’s the ice that makes Whiteout special.

The movie makes a hash of the comic, freely mixing story elements from both original and sequel, adding elements of its own, ditching the parts that gave the comic its noir film feel, replacing butch and beleagured Carrie with dishy Kate Beckinsale (and a gratuitous strip-and-shower scene right up front), undercutting the cramped feel of McMurdo dorms with ludicrously large and lavish private quarters, and just generally pissing all over the source material. I can’t help but feel the bad reviews are fueled more by indignation at this disregard for the comic than by weaknesses of the movie itself.

When source material is a flawed gem, or merely flawed, there is every reason for a movie version to get all revisionist. The film version of Wanted turned a stinking pile of comic book crap into a passable popcorn-cruncher; the filmed stage version of I, Claudius turned an initially racy but eventually repetitive novel into something extraordinary. But when you start with something excellent, then by golly preserve that excellence, or just leave it alone.

Raw, Bloody Flesh

Eileene wants to try poke (poh-KAY) when we go to Hawaii. We will, of course. Half the reason we travel anywhere is for the food. (Yes, even when we visit family. Mom’s cooking. Sampling new restaurants. Genuine Filipino food.) And I’ve got a code of honor concerning new food: I have to try at least a bite, preferably two.

But poke… Oh boy. Chunks of raw fish are a dubious start, though freshness helps. I still haven’t adapted to sushi, though I can enjoy salmon sushi when I’m in the right mood, and I can eat three or four other types without relish. But take chunks of fresh raw fish and toss them with seaweed flakes and seasonings, producing a mucilaginous, um… sauce. You could hear the squlickglup as the chef at islands’ most celebrated poke place prepared a batch for the Food Channel cameras. Eileene was delighted; I was severely put off.

I’ll try it. I will. Oh boy.

Villainy for Fun and Profit

I’m using Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat for RPG instruction. See, the campaign is titled “Bastards!” and we’re all to play bastards of one stripe or another: people denied inheritance of once kind or another and determined to win it back by any means necessary. I intend to play a conquering hero closed out of the highest ranks of command by a touch of the alien Vile. (Compare Richard III.) He’s aiming high: a military coup, but only with the best of intentions, namely to lead the kingdom to victory over the Vile, which can only happen with his military genius at the helm.

Problem: I don’t think I have the chops to make a coup happen, even with a bit of game fudging. So I borrowed Coup d’Etat—subtitled “a practical handbook.” (This is the GM’s book, which means he’ll know my plans. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to bear in mind…) And practical handbook it is, full of solid historical examples to emulate or avoid.

Sometimes. The thing is, Luttwak offers hard advice on the easy stuff. Given a particular structure of troops and police, how do you neutralize the structure with a minimum number of subverted individuals (each subversion effort presenting a risk to the security of the coup)? Piece of cake. Any body sufficiently far from the capital can be cut off as long as you control the transport. Otherwise, large, homogenous bodies require the actual leadership to be subverted. Complex, technical bodies can be neutralized by subverting its smallest necessary component. Optimization theory is my forte.

Politics, now, that’s a different matter entirely. Focus on the layer at which command decisions are actually made, fine. But how do you identify the layer at which actual decisions are made? Tell potential recruits what they want to here, okay. But how do you know what they want to hear? The book is a little vague on the details. “Convert officers to your cause using the usual arguments.” What arguments? Unspecified. Which doesn’t do me any good. Despite what Teen Talk Barbie might have you believe, optimization theory is easy; interpersonal relationships are hard. And, when individuals are so critical to the success or failure of a coup, “a practical handbook” isn’t all that practical without practical advice on the psychology of the coup on the individual level as well as the national level.

Essence of Comedy

I came late to “The Green Room,” a cable show in which Paul Provenza hosts a panel of four other comedians in open discussions of the stand-up comedian’s life and profession, ideally without the comedians hiding themselves and the more somber truths of their craft too thoroughly behind their wit. I first heard of the show only a month or two ago on NPR as though the show were a promising future possibility, but no: it’s already in its second season. I’ve seen three episodes so far. All three episodes have been enlightening and quite different in tone. I’m eager to see more.

Several moments stick with me, the best being the more introspective. Provenza really wants this to be more than a display of rapid-fire wit, and I have to agree. What sticks most with me, however, is something not directly from the show, but from Provenza’s interview on “The Sound of Young America.” Among his observations there was the assertion that an essential component of the stand-up comedian is a word view that (1) recognizes that everything is at least a little bit screwed up, and (2) isn’t ashamed to talk about it.

We all know that a lot of things are screwed up. Most of us are willing to talk about most of them, although politeness or circumspection require that we quietly look the other way from certain topics. All of us feel to some degree that we’re screwed up, too, and we’re all right to some degree about that. But the natural inclination is to hide that shame, lest it become humiliation. What sets the comic apart, Provenza suggested, is a recognition that it’s all imperfect and, knowing this, an ability to expose personal weakness as well as complaining.

That comedy helps us to deal with uncomfortable truths, and that comedians make a living speaking uncomfortable truth, are old truisms, at least as old as the court jesters who were deliberately employed to protect rulers from bad ideas by ridiculing them. But Provenza’s formulation, specifically that comedians draw the courage to expose themselves to ridicule from a recognition that we are not individually special in our imperfections, was new to me. And it’s a claim that touches my soul.

I have a comedic streak, too. I inherited a taste for clowning from my dad and a harsh eye and refusal to hold my tongue from the whole Roth side of the family. Provenza’s formulation of comedy is exactly how I come to my material. Everything is screwed up. Some things are screwed up a lot, others just a little, but everything is screwed up; telling ourselves otherwise is just as foolish as any other lie we want to believe. So I find little discomfort in holding up my failings to ridicule, and only belatedly begin to realize that not everyone is equally open about their own shortcomings, or the shortcomings of things they like. My sense of humor often seems mean-spirited, but it isn’t; I just find imperfection interesting. With the right spin, it’s downright funny. So Provenza’s formulation makes me take pride in having something in common with the best comics. It makes me feel like I’m doing something smart and brave, and not something callous. Which is good, because I can hardly stop myself, anyways, and it’s better to laugh than to grow embittered.