Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My work cut out for me...

I'm warning my faithful readers (all four of you) that my posts will be sparse for the next four months. Earlier this evening I received a contract for a game book. I'm going to be writing a supplement for a roleplaying game! I'll write more about it in the coming weeks, but I don't want to say too much as I still haven't sent back the contract!

This is the reason I haven't posted much this month. Based on a post to an online forum I was asked about my idea for a game supplement. After some discussion I was asked to submit a proposal. When they liked that, they asked for a sample of my writing in the form of the book's introduction along with the outline for the book. I found out this evening that the guys liked it. That turned out to be the easy part; now I have to write the darned thing!

The book will run about 80,000 words, which is equivalent to a novel. And I have four months to write it (the first draft is due October 1). Even if I averaged 2,000 words a day (and that's a pretty good clip) it would still take me 40 days. So, when I have the option of writing a blog entry, playing a game, sleeping, or eating, I really should be writing.

I am running a Call of Cthulhu game by VoIP (voice over IP) using Skype on Thursday nights. That will continue. I am also running a couple of roleplaying games one weekend a month. That, too, will continue though I suspect that I'll end up using that group as playtesters for the scenario I'm including in the book. We hate when Logan goes away to stay at Alana's ex's place, but at least that will give me two-week long stints during the summer without distraction, and allow me to spend some time with Logan during the time he's with us.

I'm pretty buzzed about it, as you can imagine. I haven't been too productive this evening due to the excitement, though I did order some research materials online. This weekend I'll start working on it in earnest. I'm going to start with the chapters that require the most creative input first. There's one chapter I'm really looking forward to writing, but which will be more research and less thinking, so that's the one I'm doing last.

So, wish me luck, and if you don't see too many posts you'll know it's not because I've ignored the blog...

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Not looking good...

Things are not looking good for On The Lot. According to Media Life, last night On The Lot pulled in a rating of 1.3 in the key 18–49 demographic. That means that of all the viewers watching television last night, 1.3% of the people in the most desirable purchasing demographic were watching the show. Those are truly dismal numbers, the kind of numbers that get a show cancelled before the end of its run. A week ago, behind American Idol it had a 3.9 rating. On Thursday this fell to 2.1.

The only bright note, if you can call it that, is other shows faired poorly over the weekend, too. The Memorial Day weekend is at least partially to blame for this.

My own feelings were expressed yesterday, but to summarize I think Fox blew it with the first two episodes. You can't do a show about movies and not show movies in the first two episodes!

At any rate, it doesn't look like my dream to try out for On The Lot season 2 will come to fruition...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Two items on the acceptance of pagan beliefs

Though I'm an agnostic secular humanist, I'm not against religion. I sometimes wish I had the comfort that comes with faith, and I sometimes envy those who have that faith. I do have a problem with organized religions that use doctrine as an excuse for hate. However, I respect everyone's right to have their own religious beliefs. Religious freedom is a hallmark of western democracy.

Of course, there isn't exactly religious freedom in the United States. You can't prevent people from being prejudiced. You have the right to believe anything you want, but there are certain places where you dare not point out that your not a Christian. This is particularly hard for people who believe in things that are beyond the "mainstream". Much of this is due to a holdover from the Dark Ages, particularly with regard to pagan beliefs. The early Christian church portrayed paganism (made up of a variety of faiths, such as Wicca and druidism, which are two different beliefs) not as a competitive religion but as an evil religion, or set of religions. This view of the pagan faiths has changed somewhat in recent years. This was shown very recently in two different events.

First, in the United States the Veterans Administration now recognizes the pentacle as a proper religious symbol that can be placed on the headstones of dead servicemen. Wiccan practitioners had requested this for a number of years, but it was only recently — with the threat of a lawsuit — that the pentacle was okayed by the VA. Since the settlement between the VA and Wiccan organizers, five headstones with the pentacle were delivered, and one request was pending. One of the headstones was for a World War II veteran, another for a Korean War veteran, and a third for a veteran of Korea and Vietnam. A pilot killed in Afghanistan in 2005 also received a Wiccan headstone.

Here is the story:

In Scotland, Edinburgh University has given the Pagan Society the go ahead to hold its annual conference at the school next month. The conference will attract Wiccans, Druids, and various other believers in the "pagan" religions. Being a Celtic country, there has always been a pagan presence in Scotland, even through the turmoil of the Reformation. With greater religious freedom, paganism has expanded in Scotland.

The Edinburgh University case is interesting because it has sparked a controversy. The school's Christian Union is complaining because they believe they were discriminated against. The Christian Union was prevented from holding a conference last year about the "dangers of homosexuality". The conference, which was intent on showing gay sex was morally wrong, went up against the university's anti-discrimination policy. The conference was allowed to go on as long as the Christian Union put up posters indicating a differing view of gays and morality. The Christian Union is protesting the pagan conference because no such "differing view" requirement was made for them. It should be noted, though, that pagans in general do not discriminate against gays. It should also be noted that the Christian Union wasn't told to put up posters saying that there were alternatives to the holy trinity, or that Christ was the son of God, or he died and was resurrected three days later. They were told to put up alternatives to the view that homosexuality was immoral.

This is a thorny issue. As much as I find Christianity's view of homosexuality and bisexuality incredibly distasteful and offensive, I'm not sure that requiring disclaimers is the right way to go. I mean, does anyone today not understand the evangelical view of homosexuality's immorality? (They may not understand that such teachings were added in the Dark Ages, and that the early Christian church performed gay marriages, but the view of gays in the evangelical movement is not new.) If you're going to give a religion freedom of expression, you have to let it freely express itself without restriction. Let the freedom of expression for other religions speak for the alternatives.

Yes, it may seem unbelievable that I'm saying this. It's what I believe. It only works, though, if the body in question is willing to allow true freedom of religion without the slightest possibility of repercussion. The local high schools got into a flap because they held a student-led prayer before graduation. I don't see a problem with that. Where I do have a problem is if a student of another faith wanted to perform a prayer and was not allowed, or even disrespected. I would hope that the same schools that allowed a Christian prayer would also allow a Hindu prayer or a Muslim prayer, or even a pagan prayer. It would be interesting to see what would happen around here if after the Christian prayer a student was allowed to say a Wiccan prayer. I wonder if the same people who applauded the prayer in school would be quite so receptive to another religion's prayer, or if they'd immediately drop into the "America is a Christian nation" argument. For now, it's just a thought experiment...

Anyway, the article about Edinburgh University can be found here:

On The Lot

I love movies. I don't watch as many as I really should. I did get to watch several this weekend (Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, half of Sands of Iwo Jima, half of The Sand Pebbles, half of Where Eagles Dare, and an episode of Band of Brothers; can you tell it's Memorial Day?). For three years in high school a friend and I went to see an average of 50 movies a year. I used to go to movies with my friend Michael when he was reviewing them for the CBC (bet he comments on this blog entry just for this reason!). I took a Film Arts class in high school. I was the only person in my class to get an A in a Film Arts elective course I took in college. I was accepted to Humber College in Toronto for the film making course (and to this day I still wonder what would have happened if I had gone that way instead of into computers...) Yes, I love movies. These days Alana and I just don't have the time to see all the films we want, either in the theatres or on DVD. We need to make more time.

Anyway, I was really excited about the new reality show On The Lot. It's essentially the film version of American Idol where budding film makers compete for a "million dollar deal" at Dreamworks. Not sure what they mean by "million dollar deal"; probably mean that the winner will be paid a guaranteed million to develop ideas for a certain length of time. For a million dollars these days you'd be hard pressed to film a commercial.

The initial ratings for On The Lot were not great. The lead in was American Idol but they lost a lot of viewers from the lead in. I think I know why. They followed the American Idol formula too closely, when they should have followed the formula for Rock Star or the Bravo reality shows. In the first episode we were introduced to about 50 people. They all made introductory films, but we never saw more than a few seconds of a handful of them. We saw a bunch of really bad pitches instead, reminding me of the really bad singers from Idol. The Bravo (Sheer Genius is an example, about hair dressing, which has surprised Alana and me by sucking us in)/Rock Star formula is to cut to the chase with about 16 competent contestants right up front. The worst contestants have been dropped before the show even really starts. This would have let the show start off by showing movies!

They pared down the 50 to 36 by having the contestants pitch a story. The winners were put into groups of three to make a one minute short. The second episode was on last Thursday when our Skype roleplaying group had our first meeting, so I didn't see it. Tonight is the third episode and, hurrah!, we get to see films!

The format is essentially identical to Idol. You see one film per film maker (this week it's a one-minute comedy short) and you vote for your favourite. The least favoured movie has the director dropped from the show. You can see all of the shorts on their web site, and you can phone in your vote, text it in, or vote via the Internet.

So far the movies have been pretty good. "Dance Man", "Deliver Me", "The Big Bad Heist", "Danger Zone" and "Replication Theory" were, in my opinion, the best. I had a couple of technical issues with the first two (a couple of shots that looked like they were out of film making 101), but they were funny and well made. The third one was by far the best made, but it wasn't a comedy movie, it was a trailer for a comedy movie (even though it was quite funny). "Danger Zone" had a crappy set (but considering the limitations it was okay) and not great actors, but the entire film was done in a single shot and is quite funny. The judges went nuts over "Check Out", about a sex fantasy at the airport. As much as I like sex fantasies, I think the "it was all a dream" plot is over done. "Replication Theory", on the other hand, told a story and had a neat little twist.

The bad ones were quite bad. "Wacky Alley Cab" just wasn't funny, and I couldn't tell what the director was getting at. "Getta Rhoom" was, apparently, supposed to be about a nerd who shouts "Get a room!" inappropriately, but the main character came across as mentally challenged (the director suggested that wasn't the idea, but I don't believe him), and only comes across as creepy. I'm not sure what ...To Screw In A Light Bulb was getting at.

The rest were, like most movies, "okay". Most produced a titter at least but were flawed in some way. The fascinating part is to see these films that didn't quite work and then try to figure out why they didn't work.

There is a problem with the judges: Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia, and recently added as host of Turner Movie Classics), D.J. Caruso (director of Disturbia), replacing Brett Ratner from the first episode (who directed Red Dragon, which wasn't as good as the original film Manhunter, and X-Men 3, which wasn't as good as the first two), and Garry Marshall (directed a bunch of TV stuff, as well as Pretty Woman and the recently panned Georgia Rule). They are too nice. There's a reason Idol has three very different judges. Randy is realistic, Simon is hateful, and Paula — who I argue is the most important judge for the success of the show — who likes everyone. Randy is the thinking person's reviewer. Simon peeves people off, encouraging them to vote to spite him. Paula reinforces everyone's vote, which also encourages them. The On The Lot judges, though, are all too nice. They qualify their votes. They encourage all the directors even when they put out crap. They give constructive criticism, but it tempers their message. They all sound the same. They need a Simon figure that says, "That was bloody awful!"

If the show is a success, it will be due to the films and not due to the show itself. The format of the first two episodes wrecked momentum. The judges don't add anything to the show. If people keep coming back, it will be to see the films themselves. If they don't come back I fear that the wrong lesson will be learned.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In the head!

I just finished watching the Lost season finale. I wish the writers would pick up the pace (a theme for tonight's posts) during the main part of the season. I know it's feasible, because the finale is always a blast (sometimes, like tonight, literally...).

Anyway, I don't want to spoil the end for those who missed it, didn't tape it, don't have TiVO and are waiting for the DVDs.

Instead, I wanted to point out something that's obvious to me: television writers, in general, don't play roleplaying games.

From watching the Heroes finale (which was good in an understated way), and now Lost I have to think that these writers haven't watched zombie movies, either. Look, guys, three words, "in the head"!

If someone's bad enough to kill, he's bad enough to kill correctly. Don't just shoot him in the chest, do a 9mm double tap to the base of the skull. If you're going to stick a sword through the guy, why stop there? Take the head off at the neck!

Not a single roleplayer would take down the big bad without making sure the big bad stayed down.

The corollary is simple: someone isn't dead until you see the lifeless corpse. Even if the body is miles away, apparently dead, or lost in a planetary gravity well, they ain't dead until the lifeless (and preferably headless) corpse is in front of you.

Spidey review

It looks like this month is going to be dismal for blog posts. I've been working on something, which I'll mention when I found out what happens. I had to complete something, and I submitted it last night. One way or another I should know within a week.

Meanwhile, a week ago Saturday we took Logan to see Spider-man 3. It turns out the professional reviews have this one correct. It was a little disappointing. That's not to say that it's a bad movie. As summer movies go it's pretty good, but it's not as good as the first two.

The film opens with Peter Parker watching Mary Jane's Broadway premiere. Peter's feeling pretty good, seeing as how Spidey is now a popular New Yorker. This is a welcome change from the comic books, which ran for decades under the premise that the people of New York couldn't tell if Spidey was good or evil. Peter wants to marry Mary Jane, but two things get in the way. First, Harry Osborne, son of Norman Osborne (who died attacking Spidey in the first movie) is out for revenge. Second, Mary Jane's career isn't going as she planned.

Besides the new Green Goblin attacking Spidey there is also the Sandman (an escaped convict who gets turned into living sand) and a mysterious symbiote (who corrupts Peter as a secondary black suit). There are a couple of other subplots vying for screen time.

That's the problem with the film: too many plots. This isn't the problem it was in the run of Batman movies that collapsed under the weight of all the supervillains in the final films (not to be confused with the pretty good Batman Forever). However, it does hurt the pacing. Like the first two movies, it starts slow, building up the story and the characterization. Unfortunately, the film's story never gains the proper momentum. Simply put, there's too much characterization. At least there's too much to fit in three villains.

The problem is the mating the Mary Jane/Peter plot with the three-way villain plot. Either the relationship plot should have been coupled to a single villain, or the relationship plot should have been dropped.

The special effects are excellent. Venom, the black suited Spidey, is well done from a technical perspective, but Venom's appearance is rushed. The folks at the Daily Bugle are a hoot. I loved Bruce Campbell's character as a maitre'd, but I thought the scene with his character was too distracting for what should have been a poignant scene. Sandman gets more character development than most super villains, and is probably the highlight of the movie (but it doesn't match the development of Doc Ock in the last film). The climax comes with not enough lead up, and the final resolution is a bit too sudden. The fight scenes are well choreographed. Peter's and Mary Jane's relationship is realistic.

This next bit is a spoiler. If you intend on seeing the movie, stop now... This covers a big plot hole.

You sure you want to keep reading?

Okay, you've been warned...

I'm convinced that at some point a change was made to the plot, and not for the better. It resulted in a big, stupid plot hole.

Mary Jane is upset with Peter for a couple of reasons. Instead of calling Peter, she calls Harry, and goes to see him. Harry has, by this time, recovered his memories. She has a nice night with Harry, and ends up kissing him. She then leaves, realizing she may go too far if she stays.

Now, as shown, Harry gets into his Goblin suit and goes after Mary Jane. He grabs her, and threatens to harm Peter if she doesn't do something for him. The next scene she tells Peter to meet him on the bridge. When he shows up, she dumps him. Harry looks on, smugly. He then confronts Peter, telling Peter that he was responsible for her dumping Peter.

While the film was running I thought that Harry would then attack Peter. He didn't. So, then I thought, "Why didn't Mary Jane phone Peter and warn him about Harry, and explain what happened?" Instead, Peter gets all upset, and tries to make her jealous. This didn't make any sense. If she really still loved Peter, if Harry really forced her to dump Peter, why did she not try to tell him or warn him? Harry couldn't have watched Peter all the time. There was no real threat to Peter.

It makes no sense. Unless...

I believe the story, as filmed, was a bit different. I believe the story followed her to Harry's place. She kissed Harry, and then left, all confused. I believe she then broke up with Peter, on her own. It makes the most sense.

Probably a focus group saw the film and reacted negatively to Mary Jane. So, they cooked up the idea that Harry forced her to break up with Peter. In the final version it wasn't her fault.

That's my take, anyway.

I did enjoy the movie, even if my review comes over as negative. It just wasn't what it could be. Hopefully the next one will be more focused.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hot ice

If this planet doesn't work out, maybe we can go to another one. Last month astronomers discovered a planet around a star about 30 light years away that was in the habitable band where scientists would expect to find water. Seeing as how the planet was something like twice the size of Earth and rocky (i.e. not a gas giant) it promises to be the closest planet to Earth, habitat wise, of any of the extrasolar planets found to date.

Recently astronomers found another planet, but we wouldn't want to live on it. The surface temperature is around 300°C... and it's made of ice.

The planet was found back in 2004 circling a star called GJ 436 about 30 light years from here. At the time they thought it was about the size of Neptune and rocky.

Scientists found the planet by looking for a wobble in nearby stars. Much like the way the moon pulls at Earth's water causing the rising and falling tides, a planet pulls at a star causing it to wobble. That's how the planet was found. Recently, though, they've been able to watch the dimming of the star as the planet passes between it and us. This gave them more information. It told them that the planet was half the size of Neptune. Now, Neptune is mostly made of hydrogen (but with an ice core). This planet was smaller than they thought, so it had to be more dense. But it wasn't small enough to be rocky. Based on this information, they think the planet is made of ice. It's close enough to its star that the surface temperature is around 300°C or about 570°F.

How can it be so hot and covered in ice?

There are two basic ways to make a solid out of a gas or liquid. One is to cool it. Molecules in a gas bounce around, and bounce into one another. Slow the molecules down by sucking out the energy and they will eventually slow down enough to capture each other. This causes them to bond. In the case of water vapour, if you cool it down it becomes liquid water (pools together into a liquid but it's easy to split apart), and cool it down some more it becomes a solid (the molecules in the water stick together and form a crystal structure we all know as ice).

The other way to form a solid is to push the molecules together with enough pressure that they can't help but bounce into each other. Press them together with even more pressure and they can't bounce off each other; they are forced to stick together and form a solid. One of the properties we like so much about water is that it's difficult to compress. If you put water in a container and push it you can't easily compress it. Instead, it presses out with the same force with which you push it. This is the basis of hydraulics. It takes an awful lot of pressure to turn liquid water into a solid, but it can be done. Push water molecules together hard enough and they will bind into each other, just like carbon molecules in the air if pressed together hard enough will form coal or a diamond.

This planet is not dense enough to be solid rock, so scientists speculate that it's a special form of ice created from a combination of the planet's own gravity and the weight of its atmosphere. This solid water, such as Ice VII and Ice X, can exist even at higher temperatures. The atmosphere would be basically steam, with a core of ice. Because the water would have boiled off early on, given the planet's proximity to its star, scientists think it was created further away from the star but was somehow pulled into a closer orbit.

For more information, here's the article:

Another climate change symptom

The Southern Ocean, the ocean around Antarctica, is saturated in carbon dioxide and can barely absorb any more. This is bad news because the Southern Ocean has been the world's biggest carbon sink. The ocean sucks (or sucked) carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, helping to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Experts expected to see the ocean saturated in carbon, but not until 2050. Now they have proof that it's been saturated from 1981 through 2004.

Part of the culprit, other than the fact that there's too much carbon in the atmosphere, has been wind. An increase in the wind around Antarctica has resulted in carbon lower in the water being pulled to the surface. This makes it harder for the water to absorb carbon at the surface boundary. More carbon dioxide means higher temperatures. Since most of the land — and, thus, most of us carbon generating humans — are in the north, the world's temperature has risen more in the northern hemisphere than the southern (though it has also risen in the south). This temperature difference has increased wind velocity in the south, which in turn has exasperated the carbon sink problem.

"Since the beginning of the industrial revolution the world's oceans have absorbed about a quarter of the 500 gigatons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere by humans," Chris Rapley of the British Antarctic Survey said in a statement.

"The possibility that in a warmer world the Southern Ocean -- the strongest ocean sink -- is weakening is a cause for concern," Rapley said.

The full article is here:

Turtle pets

Yeah, it's really been over a week since I posted. I've been busy working on a couple of projects. More on this sometime in the future.

Driving in to work this morning I heard on NPR that the U.S. Senate is looking to legalize pet baby turtles. I remember when I was in junior high school my mother warned me, for whatever reason, that turtles were not safe pets. Back in the mid-70s baby turtles, usually red-eared sliders from Louisiana, were all the rage. They were small, and they were easy to care for. Unfortunately, 30% of them had salmonella (according to NPR).

Apparently a lot of them were harvested in water that was close to sewer outlets. Reptiles in general are susceptible to salmonella (as are chickens; wonder if their common ancestors, the dinosaurs, carried salmonella?). Adults know enough to wash their hands after handling a reptile. These little turtles were often the pets of small children, who would sometimes put them in their mouths (and never washed up afterwards).

A lot of kids got sick, and at least one child died. In 1976 the U.S. government outlawed the sale of the turtles. You can still buy them from people breaking the law; charging vendors of baby turtles is not high on the government's list of important criminal activity.

Recently the U.S. Senate passed a law that would remove the ban on their sale. The House of Representatives will vote on it in June. The baby turtle industry has literally cleaned up its act. The turtles are now being farm raised in Louisiana. One farmer on the radio discussed the procedure they use to clean the eggs. The FDA isn't happy about it as they still see them as a health risk. Salmonella in the turtles has been reduced from 30% to 1%, but to the FDA it still seems to be too high. It's likely, though, that the ban will be lifted. I guess there must be an unusually strong turtle lobby.

Here's the humane society's page on the turtles. They are against the sale of the animals, citing a 100% mortality rate within the first year due to improper feeding and handling of the creatures.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Okay, I"m crying I'm laughing so hard

On a lighter note, The Daily Show is quite funny tonight, talking about Queen Elizabeth's visit to the U.S. (Yeah, I know, she calls herself QE2. Scotland never had a queen named Elizabeth, so she's not Scotland's second Queen Elizabeth...) John Oliver, the show's English correspondent, was being made fun of. At one point he retaliated by reminding Jon Stewart that once Britain was as arrogant as the U.S.

"We used to laugh at India. Then we realized that they outnumbered us. And that we didn't like to fight in the heat."

Hmmm... doesn't seem as funny in print, but it had me in stitches with tears streaming from my eyes.

Go to The Daily Show's web site tomorrow and watch it for yourself.

Didn't realize just how backward the local school board is

I don't usually watch the local news. I did happen to catch the news tonight before changing channels. The local high school is caught up in a controversy with school prayer. They are allowing a student led prayer at the school's graduation exercise, even though it's a violation of church and state. Well, that's not really surprising. The local government offices pray at meetings and allow open display of religious items, posters, etc. in offices. It's such a monoculture that they don't see anything wrong with it. That's not a fight worth fighting locally.

No, what bothered me was learning the Ouachita Parish school board has allowed the teaching of intelligent design in high school through the back door of "teaching the controversy". Teachers will be able to take up valuable school time teaching the one-sided argument that evolution is "just a theory" (in the English sense, not the scientific sense). The fact that there is no controversy in the scientific community and that evolution is a scientific fact is beside the point.

I knew we didn't live in an "enlightened" area, but I hadn't realized we were behind Kansas!

So, they'll "teach the controversy" from material provided by intelligent design groups and a local religious right lobby group. They won't hear, for instance, that for more than the last 20 years there has been an average of 100 scientific papers published describing actual, observed evolution, in the laboratory and in the field.

One of the arguments against evolution is that it "supposedly" happens in such long time periods that it's never been observed in real time. That's not true. A friend on an e-mail mailing list is a marine biologist in Australia. She told me about the number of papers detailing the observed creation of new species. Some of it is in the laboratory, but some of it is in the wild, too. The observations have been seen in plants, insects, and even higher life like fish. Basically, scientists have seen one species develop offspring that were able to reproduce with themselves, but which were unable to reproduce with their ancestors due to genetic variations.

That's just one thing that high school students won't here. They'll be led to believe that evolution is on shaky ground. Forget the fact that most of the arguments against evolution focus on Darwin's early work, which is about 150 years old. In physics, this would be the same as trying to argue that we're all surrounded by a colourless, odourless, tasteless ether in which light waves (and that was finally shot down when Einstein's special relativity came out about 100 years ago). In a scientific sense, evolution has been proven more strongly than almost any other theory extant. There's more proof of evolution than for gravity.

As you can see, this is a hot button for me...

With our help, and the help of Logan's uncle and aunt, we'll be at least be able to teach Logan the truth. At this point that's the best we can hope for, here in Darwin's waiting room known as Ouachita Parish...

Monday, May 07, 2007

Canadian coins not used for spying

This has been an interesting week for Canadian coins. First there was the $1 million gold coin, and now we learn that Canadian coins were not used to spy on American contractors.

This bizarre story surfaced about a year ago. U.S. Army contractors returning from Canada between October 2005 and January 2006 found strange looking coins in their pockets. On closer inspection they found that they were Canadian coins. (*rimshot!*) Seriously, though, the contractors thought the coins looked stranger than just a normal Canadian coin. They reported this strangeness to their higher-ups, because they were told to be on the look out for anything that might be a security breach. The first suspicious coin was found in the cup holder of a contractor's rental car. Another was found in another contractor's coat pocket, when he swore that before he left that morning his pockets were empty.

The suspicious coins were submitted as part of a 29 page report on espionage concerns. There was speculation that someone was using RFID tags to record the locations of the contractors. Someone even went so far as to say that the coins used nanotechnology.

It came out today that the coins were... well, just regular 25¢ coins.

Okay, they weren't regular coins. They were special quarters to remember Canada's war dead. In the centre is a red poppy. The poppy was used to commemorate dead soldiers during the First World War. It's been used as a symbol of remembrance in Canada and the rest of the British Commonwealth ever since. It comes from a line in the poem "In Flanders Fields" written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian, on May 3, 1915. British Commonwealth war dead were buried, among other places, in Flanders (in Belgium). Poppies grew in those fields, which prompted the poem's first two lines. I remember memorizing the poem in school, but I don't remember all of it now. Thanks to Wikipedia, here it is:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Anyway, to remember Canada's war dead 90 years after the poem was written, the Canadian mint released a special quarter coin. It has a maple leaf pattern. Inside the pattern is a red poppy. The coin is covered in a special coating so that the red of the poppy doesn't simply wear off. This coating will glow in ultraviolet light.

These were the coins that worried the U.S. Army contractors. No RFID. No nanotech. What worried them was apparently due to Canada's painted metal technology.

Oh, and the coins are exceedingly rare. Only 30 million of them were produced.

The U.S. Defense Department is investigating the security alert that was put out due to the partially red coins.

For an article on the coins, and a picture of one of them, see this article:

The best line is from H. Keith Melton, an intelligence historian. "I thought the whole thing was preposterous, to think you could tag an individual with a coin and think they wouldn't give it away or spend it."

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Roleplaying stuff

Instead of posting something original to me (and I can just hear the sound of the fans going wild!), I'm going to post a couple of links to stuff that crossed my inbox this week.

Item: Darrel Plant writes, on his blog, about an episode 25 years ago when he was asked by a local library to do a presentation about Dungeons and Dragons, only to find himself in a debate with a local church group. This was all the rage back then. Sometime in 1985 or '86, a bunch of us were hanging out at my parents' place late in the morning when a religious program came on to "discuss" D&D. It turned out that there was no discussion, it was a lecture. My friend called in to disagree with the moderator, and apparently only got online because the preface to his story, "I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't do drugs..." had the moderator believing he was a Lutheran divinity student!

At any rate, of all the things to worry about these days D&D doesn't even register in the top 100. It was a different story in 1982. In fact, my disdain for organized religion began in 1985 while reading a tract in church about D&D's "evils". That so disgusted me that I never went back.

Here's Darrel's story of his experiences in trying to explain the lack of evil in roleplaying, back in 1982. (For the record, I had all the RPGs he mentions, except Bushido, which I'd always wanted to get.)

Item: My friend, Lorna, sent me this link to an article in The Onion. I used to read the online version religiously, and the paper version when I visited Milwaukee and could actually buy it. I haven't read it in a bit, so I missed this article.

If anyone ever asks me what playing Call of Cthulhu is like, I think I'll send them this link:

Item: In response to Lorna's message, Do-Ming — another friend, and fellow intrepid American Civil War battlefield explorer — sent this link. It's to a cartoon that pretty much explains the roleplaying mindset in general:

Item: Skype roleplaying is accelerating in popularity. Roleplaying is a social hobby. Sure you can play computer and console game RPGs, but they basically only follow the bare mechanics of RPGs (and D&D/D20 in particular), and they distill down to "kill things and take their stuff". Roleplaying is different, and far better, with other people. Unfortunately it's still somewhat of a fringe hobby, particularly if you live in an area with a small population and you don't want to play D&D or White Wolf's World of Darkness games. In response, Skype gaming has taken off.

Skype is an online voice over IP (VoIP) system that allows you to talk to others via your computer. Skype charges you if you use their service to call someone's land line or cell phone, but computer-to-computer use is free. This allows voice communication over the Internet. Skype allows conference calls of up to about 9 people, so all but the largest groups can be accomodated.

But what about the physical mechanics of playing the game, like rolling dice or drawing pictures to show everyone where their characters are located?

As it turns out, I'll be playing a Skype game Real Soon Now. One of the players, Tom, has a license to Klooge.Werks. I'll have to talk to him about this in more depth, but it's a Java tool for running online roleplaying games. It's full featured, but it's also a bit pricey, running up to US$60 for a six license pack.

Doing some digging, though, I found a thread on talking about Skype gaming. Someone pointed out several freeware products that are useful.

The products are:

  • An online dice roller: These aren't necessary, as a number of folks simply trust each other and use real dice.

  • Thinkature, an online white board: Great for sharing quick drawings.

  • ScreenMonkey:
    . ScreenMonkey is a map program, but with a difference. You can place icons on the map representing players and bad guys/monsters/etc. The icons can be moved or removed. This is an online version of a map sheet and metal miniatures. There's a free, "lite" version that looks like it might have everything we need.

  • Shoutcast: Shoutcast is an internet radio site. It allows you to upload music and let others listen to it. Since I tend to use mood music, I can post the music to the site and let the players listen, if they are so inclined.

  • Sometimes you just want to play a recording or a noise effect, not an actual piece of music. This is where Pamela comes in: Pamela is essentially a Skype voice mail package, but apparently it allows you to play sound clips over Skype. One of the versions is free.

I will, of course, post here about how well our Skype gaming session turns out.

Canada releases world's most expensive coin

Canada has released the world's largest, purest, most expensive gold coin. The coin has a face value of C$1 million. It is 53 cm (about 21 inches) across, 3 cm (about 1.2 inches) thick, and weighs in at 100 kg (about 221 lb). The coin is 99.999% pure gold, the highest purity level reached in a coin (Canada was the first country to mint a coin that was 99.99% pure).

Here's an article from Reuters, with a picture of the coin:

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Scottish election historic... and a debacle

As I mentioned last week, the Scottish parliament's elections were held this week. Election day was Thursday.

The Scottish National Party won the election, by winning more seats in the Scottish parliament than any other party. The main opponents, by rank of seats, were the Labour Party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Liberal-Democrats, and then the Green Party taking up the rear. The number of seats in the 131 seat parliament, by party, are SNP 47, Labour 46, Conservatives 17, Lib-Dems 16, Greens 2, Independents 1.

A couple of notes about the Scottish parliament. First, if you add the seats up you'll notice they total 129. That's because the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General of Scotland — neither position of which is elected — both have seats in parliament. These positions, combined, are much like the Attorney General position in the U.S. or the Solicitor General in Canada (with the Lord Advocate being the senior of the two).

Second, the seats in Scotland's parliament use a system called the mixed member proportional representation system. Seventy-three seats are voted on by the people of a constituency. They choose a name on a ballot and vote for that person. This is a "first past the post" system, much like Canadian parliamentary elections and the congressional elections in most U.S. states (but not Louisiana). Canadians can think of a constituency as equivalent to a riding, and Americans can think of the constituencies as akin to a congressional district. Then, the voters vote a second time — on the same ballot — for a particular party, and this is used to determine the number of additional seats awarded to a party in a region.

The way this second ballot works takes a little explaining...

The problem with first past the post elections in multi party system is that you usually end up with more people voting against the winner of an election than for the winner. If you have four parties in a constituency, it's possible to win with the election with just slightly more than 25% of the vote (or even less than 25% of the vote if there are independents or spoiled ballots). Even Americans see this happening (more people voted against Bush in the 2000 election than for him) though it's more common with multiple parties.

So, to get around this issue and give the other parties more of a say, Scotland has this second ballot system. People vote for a party for their region on the second ballot. They do not vote for a particular person. These second ballots are totalled for the entire region. Then, the vote for a party is divided by the number of seats they won in the constituency plus 1. So, if a party received 50,000 votes and won nine seats on the first set of ballots, they would get 50,000 divided by (9 + 1) = a score of 5,000. After all the numbers are calculated for each party, the party with the highest number gets a regional seat. Each party supplies a list of people who will serve in parliament for the region if their party gets a regional seat. The first person on the winning party's list becomes the first of the seven regional members.

Then, the process is done again, but the party who just won a seat from the list has their total recalculated as the number of votes divided by the number of constituency seats plus the list seat they just won plus 1. The party this time with the most votes gets the second regional seat. Then the process continues again. Each time a party gets a regional seat their total is recalculated, with the divisor increasing by 1 for each "list" member they are assigned. The process ends when all seven seats are allocated.

For an example of how this works, see this page (it's for what appears to be a Scottish fringe party):

This means that it's incredibly likely that a party that wins a region's constituencies in a landslide is unlikely to win any of the region's "list" members unless it also has a vast majority of the votes on the second ballot. Since most people are going to vote the same way on both ballots, this method evens out the representation in parliament. As an example from the 2003 election, all 10 of the Glasgow region constituency seats were won by Labour, but the seven regional seats were split between five other parties.

So, with this in mind, here are the full results of the Scottish election:

In a first past the post only election, Labour would have won a majority. Of course, if that had been the case in 2003 Labour would have won an even bigger majority than it enjoyed, even though they only received about 35% of the popular vote. Now the Scottish National Party has won a minority government, and will probably look to the Liberal-Democrats to help form a coalition. This is historic, because the SNP have long advocated Scotland's independence from Great Britain, and have run on a platform promising a referendum on the issue. This result is similar to when the Parti Quebecois first won a provincial election in Quebec, though for the analogy to work it would be like they won when only Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia had provincial parliaments.

Whether or not Scotland will pull out of the Union is still up in the air, but the country is one step closer to a vote on the issue. John Major's Conservatives in London were against giving Scotland its own parliament in the late 90s, fearful that it would "end 1000 years of British history" (even though the Act of Union, and thus Great Britain, was less than 300 years old at that point). The Labour party said that Scotland having its own party would fatally undermine the SNP by giving Scots a measure of self governance, and thus quench the desire for independence. It, uh, didn't work out that way...

That's the historic part of the election. Unfortunately, the election process itself was somewhat of a debacle. It is being called the worst run election in modern British history. At the centre of the is a farce reminiscent of Florida's hanging chad fiasco.

Some 100,000 votes had to be thrown out because they were spoiled. In other words, the votes were filled out incorrectly and thus had to be eliminated. Spoiled ballots are a feature of non-electronic/non-machine elections. When you cast your vote on a ballot using a pen, people will sometimes put down their mark for more than one candidate. This means the vote is invalid, but it does get counted among the votes cast. In Canada people would sometimes spoil their vote as a protest (though there's no constitutional requirement for the government to do anything if a sufficiently high number of spoiled votes ever appeared), but most spoiled ballots were accidental. On Thursday's Scottish election, 100,000 votes — or approximately 1 in 20 — had to be ignored. What's worse, the proportion hit about 10% in some constituencies. In six locations the number of spoiled ballot exceeded the difference in votes between the first and second place candidates. In Scotland's 2003 election the percentage of spoiled ballots came to 0.81% (roughly 1/6 what it was this year).

The vast majority of spoiled ballots were due to a poorly designed form (much like the criticism levelled at Florida in 2000). If you made it this far, you know about Scotland's two-ballot election system. In the past, both ballots were on different pieces of differently coloured paper. It was easy to understand what you were supposed to make one mark on each piece of paper. This time around the two pieces of paper were thrown onto one form. Voters were supposed to put one mark in each column, only. Instead, some voters became confused (ala Florida's "Jews for Buchanan") and put down two marks in the first column, none in the second, and thus their vote wasn't valid. The ballot paper said, "You have two votes", apparently resulting in the confusion.

Adding to the the confusion was the fact that two different elections were held on the same day. The town council elections were held at the same time, using a different piece of paper and a different voting system. In these elections you chose members by putting down a number, ranking the preference. It saved money having two elections at once, but some of the parliament ballots had numbers on them, indicating that some people read the rules for the council elections and applied those rules to the parliamentary election ballot, spoiling them.

Then there is the mess with the counting machines. The ballots were paper ballots, but they were machine counted. The ballot was fed into a machine, and the machine read the vote and tallied it. This worked well at first (i.e. with the first few dozen ballots at any given polling station) but then the counting machines started to mangle the ballots. The stations kept mangled ballots (which apparently couldn't be counted due to the mangling, adding insult to injury) separate from the other ballots for later hand counting.

If this wasn't enough, in one polling station a man returned to the station, after voting, with a golf club! He attacked he ballot boxes with the club, physically tearing a number of ballots. He was eventually hauled away. In the Western islands a thick fog grounded the helicopter that was supposed to fly over to pick up the ballot boxes. Instead, they had to secure trucks and drive the ballots to the mainland via ferry.

The Labour Party has announced that they are challenging the election results. Not surprising as they are behind by only a single constituency. Meanwhile, there will be an inquiry into the election. What a way to start a parliamentary session. And some wags have pointed out that it doesn't bode well for independence when a country disenfranchies 5% of the electorate...

For information about the debacle, see this article: