26 April 2006

9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Disappointing noir novel with a weird science/mystical backstory. Would have been way better as a Tim Powers style weird stuff story in noir style.
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24 April 2006

Earth, Air, Fire and Custard by Tom Holt

Third in The Portable Door series. Okay, but would have been way better if the plot was not so that complicated he spends the final third of the book explaining it.
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Jungle Planet Daisy

Just played another playtest of Badass Space Marines. It is written up at the NZRaG forum.

There's also a couple of small rules revisions posted here.

19 April 2006

Game Chef review: The Glass Bead Game

Next read was The Glass Bead Game by Dan Ravipinto.

First up, I have enormous respect for the author simply because they have created something like the game from Hermann Hesse's book. Strictly speaking, it would probably just count as one of the simpler ways to play that game, but that's still quite an acheivement.

Part of the game plays like Universalis. Kind of. Then you do more traditional roleplaying for a while. Then the results of the session feed into the setup of the next one.

Each session (4 sessions of 2 hours are required) starts with the players filling out emotions and related concepts on a graph (in the mathematical sense - nodes with connections).

Then you claim two nodes to form the basis of your character and fill out another graph with these and other related concepts to make up your character. That's the second section.

Then you play out scenes that revolve around a connection on the story graph - two related concepts. Conflicts are resolved by bidding counters to claim nodes on the story graph, after which a die is rolled to determine which node resolves it. The owner of that node wins (so getting more nodes is the key).

The last bit of the session involves finding the nodes that were most important in the story and character graphs. These are used to seed the next session, so that each of the games will build on what was important in the one before.

This game isn't to my taste, particularly, but Ravipinto has some really cool narrative control mechanics in there. I think the game needs some kind of setting - even one as open as the novel, in which the world is basically the same (as Germany in the 1950s or so) except for the game itself.
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Game Chef review: Decade

Next finalist is Decade by Jessica Hammer.

This game takes place in ten one-hour sessions. Each is a New Years' party in which a group of friends meet each year.

Over the course of each session, the characters are developed and their stories over the decade are told.

There's some interesting ideas in there, like you don't decide your initial character traits - they are given to you by other players when you arrive at the first party.

Players take turns starting scenes, playing cards that define what emotions the scene will involve.

Conflicts are determined via a straight card-bidding system, with the loser getting the cards bid by the winner.

At midnight, the session ends and the players may establish some resolutions - things they hope their character will do over the next year. Again, you bid cards to do this, and the other players may match your bid to add complications.

Some interesting ideas in here, and I think that it should be a lot of fun. I am also not completely sure how the bidding mechanics will work in play, they may need some tweaking after playtesting.
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18 April 2006

Game Chef review: Liquid Crystal

Next on the list is Liquid Crystal by Ashok Desai.

Thiis game is played in eight hours. It is the story of a post-robot-holocaust society. Players take the parts of brainwiped and reactivated robots who have eight hours to show that they can be trusted to have normal (i.e. sane) human emotions. If they do so, they get to go on and have a life. Otherwise they get wiped again.

It's a great setting and cool idea. The system is good, but nothing jumps out at me as especially nifty. The GM advice section feels like a solid core that could use a little bit of expansion.

Worth a look.
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Game Chef review: Time Traitor

The finalists for Game Chef 2006 have been selected, so I now have to read another few games to vote on the winners. I'll share my impressions here.

First up is Time Traitor by Brian Hollenbeck.

This is a really nice looking pdf, is the first impression. The initial premise is great too.

You're a team of time travellers, trying to preserve the civilization you live in. You play two sessions, at least two weeks apart. The first covers a seemingly normal mission to fix something in history that has been meddled with. The session ends with your return to discover that the timeline has collapsed and one of your team is the traitor who did it during that mission.

The second session involves redoing the mission in an attempt to find the traitor. Reconstructing events is done via limited notes taken in the first session and your memories. Players may bid to challenge each other (which is kind of accusing them of being the traitor). At the end of the second session, the traitor(s) are unmasked.

The group setup is pretty cool, too. Each player gets to do only limited things - one can move the focus of the group back or forward in time, another can interact with the people there, another can make objects, and so forth.

It's a great way to do a time travel game, but I can't really get a feel for how the mechanics will work in play. Worth a read, probably worth buying if Hollenbeck gets it published.
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Dead Like Me

A borrowed the dvds of Dead Like Me, and I have made it through series one and begun series two. It's absolutely brilliant.

The setup is half Wonderfalls and half Tru Calling, with a touch of Good Vs Evil.

A young woman is tragically killed by a falling toilet seat and then finds herself not dead but undead, and now a grim reaper - releasing the souls of those about to die.

It ends up being a lot about working, as well as death. Her reaper duties are unpaid, so she needs a day job as well. The series also follows what happens to her family after her death. It's black humour, mostly - the little demon guys who set up the actual deaths are like out of control practical jokers - but there's always the underlying seriousness of the deaths.

The series has an excellent cast, and excellent characters. The deepest are the other reapers, and they're all fascinating characters (some of them seem pretty shallow when you first meet them, but that doesn't last long).

In the episodes I have seen, the only weak one was a flashback (i.e. "just reuse some old footage") episode. Even that had a good plot in between the recycling, it was just annoying to have to rewatch the old bits to get there.

Watch this.
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Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean B Carroll

A great introduction to the state of evolutionary development science. This is the study of embryology and growth at the cellular or molecular level, in the context of evolution.

It's a excellently written book, easily accesible to a layperson and full of interesting stuff. I was surprised at the amount of progress that has been made in understanding these processes, and what this understanding has shown about the history of life.

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15 April 2006

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

I wsan't sure whether this was going to be good or terrible. It turns out that it is good.

It's a Napoleonic adventure story, with a single fantastic element - the existence of dragons (and their use in war as an air force). Although this gets it classed as fantasy, it doesn't read like a fantasy novel (which is all good).

The book follows a naval Captain who accidentally imprints a captured, hatchling dragon and what consequently happens to the two of them.

Overall, a fun read.
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14 April 2006


After seeing The Kids Are Alright, we got out the film Tommy as well.

It is interesting, but not really fun. Ken Russell's direction is so over the top and bizarre that the film is really an exercise in trying to work out what the fuck he is trying to show you. Not really entertainment at all.

Also, the music isn't as good as the album.

On the plus side, the cameos from Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and Elton John are hilarious. In fact, there are a whole lot of funny scenes in there, in between the being confused.
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13 April 2006

Unweaving The Rainbow by Richard Dawkins

This book is intended as a response to the claim that scientific understanding of the world is incompatible with a sense of wonder.

Dawkins covers a range of topics, in each pulling out some unexpected and cool things that have been discovered, so from that point of view I guess he succeeded.

It's unusual for him, in that not all of it is about biology. He addresses some other areas to show interesting bits and pieces.

Well worth reading.
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11 April 2006

Walk The Line

Good film, not terribly good biography of Cash. Focuses solely on a romanticised version of his relationship with June Carter, and the music as a second element.

Still, you can go read his autobiographies if you want all the gory details I suppose.

Also, Joaquin Phoenix is absurdly good at (almost) capturing Cash's voice and stage manner.
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The Kids Are Alright

This is a documentary of various footage of The Who over the course of their careers. It's great stuff, although a little chaotic due to the different styles of film.
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Desperately Seeking Susan

I wasn't really expecting to enjoy this, but it is actually a fun film.

Partly this was just looking at the fashions from a couple of decades on, but mainly because it is a pretty good comedy.
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09 April 2006

Killing Monsters by Gerard Jones

A very interesting argument that violence in popular media (TV, film, computer games, comics, music) is not harmful to children but actually a way of learning to deal with life.

Very anecdotal, rather than scientific, but Jones makes a good argument and basically makes sense. Lots of good thinking on how and why these things appeal to young people (which often applies just as much to adults, really).

He's done a lot of work with kids of varoius ages in schools, and it seems that a lot of what he's saying is based on what they are telling him they get from popular media.
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08 April 2006

Bad Medicine by Christopher Wanjek

A broad overview of commonly held misconceptions about health and medicine, along with the real facts on each topic. Clear, interesting and relevant to pretty much everyone.

Probably should be on the 'recommended reading for all humans' list.
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06 April 2006

The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey by Chris Beard

A popular science book about current thinking on the history of primates. Overall, good stuff. Interesting, with a lot of stuff I hadn't known in there.

The author's own professional opinions come on pretty strong when he discusses disputes, but I found it hard to take this too seriously. Most of the disputes appear to only exist due to the paucity of fossils, so I assume most of this will become obvious as more are discovered.

The book also goes into more detail than I was interested in about certain key remains. I ended up skimming pages of analysis of teeth, for instance. Not a big deal, really.
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05 April 2006

Monster - Dylan Moran

Watched this DVD of Moran's standup comedy, Dublin 2004 (or something).

It is incredibly funny.
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03 April 2006

Super Size Me

Finally, Super Size Me.

This wan't my choice at the video store, but I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. As expected, watching the filmmaker get fat and sick from his McDonalds-only diet was scary and disgusting. However, there was a lot more in the documentary that I hadn't expected. This served to add context to his experiment and depth to the film.

Probably everyone should see this, just in case you have any lingering misconceptions that this sort of food might be okay or even not too bad (the filmmaker almost went into liver failure from the diet).
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Lost In La Mancha

Second film was Lost In La Mancha.

This was intended to be a making of documentary for Terry Gilliam's film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Unfortunately, the film was not completed due to a string of disasters (it was hardly begun, really, just six days of filming).

This is hard work to watch - you see Gilliam and the other main crew falling apart as things get worse and worse. It's like a slow crash happening, with the crew aware even at the beginning (as preproduction starts) that things aren't good. They have only half the budget they originally wanted, for example. It's also depressing because you can see that the film would have been great - it looked like it could have been one of Gilliam's best.

It's an interesting piece, just showing parts of the film-making process that you don't usually see or think about in action.
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A weekend of watching documentaries! First, Amandla!.

This looks at the importance of music in the South African struggle against apartheid. Very interesting stuff. Mainly interviews with musically inclined involved in the movement, all put together very well.
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02 April 2006

Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

A strange kind of travel book, Banks is commissioned to travel to distilleries all over Scotland in search of the best malt whisky. Begins kind of annoyingly as he rubs this "job" in the reader's face a little much. However, I guess it's understandable that he'd be so pleased.

Anyway, he then sets off with a variety of freinds and vehicles to explore the distilleries. The book ends up being as much about driving arond Scotland as it is about whisky. Banks is a pleasantly chatty writer for the subject and this isn't really a problem. He puts in a lot of small autobiographical asides and comments on the invasion of Iraq that was occurring as he wrote the book. These pull you out of the narrative a little, but they also give you an interesting insight into Banks himself.

There's not very much on the details of making whisky, nor even on tasting notes. He does, of course, describe the malts that he drinks. The descriptions are just not that formal - more like the discussion you might have with people as you drink the stuff. This is probably better than the more formal type, in the end.

A good read, especially if you feel you need an excuse to buy some malt whisky or travel to Scotland.
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Doghouse Roses by Steve Earle

This is a collection of stories by Earle. They cover pretty much the same territory as his songs (in fact there's one here that he's recorded a song version of as well - Taneytown).

They are all good, with a few really standout stories. They're all pretty raw stuff, of course.
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