Sunday, August 31, 2008

Watching Gustav

It was just a little over 3 years ago when I first started this blog. It was in the wake of Katrina, with Hurricane Rita heading to the coast. I thought it would be a good idea to start a blog with the hurricane on the way. I could point my family to the blog instead of getting the same, repeated questions of concern.

So, here I am on post number 383 talking about a hurricane about to hit the Louisiana coast. As of right now, Gustav is heading toward the coast just west of New Orleans. Normally winds are stronger on the northeast quadrant of a Gulf hurricane. According to the news, it's looking like Houma, LA is going to be in the northeast quadrant. In the case of Katrina — which hit east of New Orleans — the storm's wind drove the water in Lake Pontchartrain down to the city where they breached the levees. Gustav will be driving Gulf water up the Mississippi, but it might be safer for the city than what happened with Katrina. Gustav is faster, too, so the surge won't last for as long.

Katrina didn't hit us in Monroe. It looks like Gustav will hit us, though. The first rains from Gustav are sliding over Jackson, MS right now. We're, personally, in good shape. When we lived in Monroe, we were in a flood area. They have drainage channels, but we never really trusted them. Now we're in West Monroe. We're on a hill with a couple of valleys around us. I figure this area would need something like a 30 foot flood surge before water would come in our second floor apartment. The building is new, too, so I don't think we'll have a problem with the wind even if it's still hurricane force when it gets to us. There are trees behind us, none of which are tall enough to land on our apartment; the fear of being hit by a tree was very real in our old place.

I'll probably post when the hurricane winds get to us, assuming that we still have power. Losing power, in the fragile infrastructure that is Entergy's northeast Louisiana territory, is our greatest worry.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Threat to cotton

One of the first really cool things I saw down here in Louisiana was a cotton field. There's something special about a field covered in white fluff balls on short, dark brown stalks. I've seen people pull off to the side of the road and grab a cotton boll right from a plant. In these days of synthetic fabrics, it's simply cool to see natural fibers growing in a field.

How long this will continue is open to conjecture, because there's a scourge afflicting the South's cotton plants. And the scourge is almost entirely man-made.

The scourge goes by the name Palmer amaranth, also known as pigweed. Pigweed grows fast (an inch a day, even in drought conditions), blocking sunlight and sucking up water intended for cotton plants. Pigweed is resistant to Roundup, the primary herbicide — created by agri-tech company Monsanto — used by cotton farmers.

Monsanto developed genetically modified cotton that was resistant to Roundup. This tied a single strain of cotton seeds to a single herbicide. Farmers could spray Roundup over their crops secure in the knowledge that it would kill everything except their cotton plants.

Some scientists warned against such a mono-culture: a single plant strain coupled to a single herbicide. Roundup killed every plant that rivaled pigweed. Pigweed evolved a strain that was resistant to Roundup. Farmers planted Roundup resistant cotton and sprayed Roundup. The result was that only two plants survived on the farms, Roundup resistant cotton and Roundup resistant pigweed. Pigweed is the stronger plant, so it started taking over. Now it threatens the South's entire cotton industry.

Here's an interesting article on Palmer amaranth.

Monday, August 25, 2008

One of the last Civil War widows dies

A couple of years ago I read a story about a woman who died claiming to be the last Civil War widow. It turns out that she was not the last.

On August 17, one of the last Civil War widows died at the age of 93. Maddie White Hopkins (her name at the time of her death) married William M. Cantrell, a Confederate veteran, in Baxter County, Arkansas in 1934. She was 19, he was 86.

Her story is actually quite touching, describing the desperate situation in that part of the country during the Depression. She cleaned and did laundry for the elderly Civil War veteran. He offered to leave her his house and land if she married him and took care of him in his final years, which she agreed to do. He died 3 years later, in 1937.

Hopkins was reluctant to come forth, afraid of what people would say about her marriage. According to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, there are other Civil War widows who are still alive, and who shun publicity for similar reasons.

When you realize that there are still people around today who were married to a man who fought in the Civil War, you realize that 150 years isn't that long ago.

You can read the full story at the Charlottesville, VA Daily Progress web site.

Presidential timing

This post isn't intended to get into the debate about who would make a better president, Barack Obama or John McCain. Instead, I wanted to point out something that most reporters haven't mentioned. (In fact, I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere yet.)

If Barack Obama becomes U.S. president he will be the first African-American president, which everyone knows. He would be the first African-American president on the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the start of the American Civil War. The anniversary takes place April, 2011. (Most historians set the beginning of the war as April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on Union-held Fort Sumter. The U.S. Supreme Court fixed the legal start of the Civil War as April 19, 1861, the day Lincoln ordered the blockade of all Southern ports.)

Obama would also be president on the 150th anniversary of the enacting of the Emancipation Proclamation, which would occur at the end of his first term on January 1, 2013.

If he loses the election, then then 150 years would have passed since these events occurred with an unending string of middle-aged (or older) white men holding the nation's top office.

If an African-American were to win the 2012 election, they would be in office on the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 13th (outlawing slavery) and 14th (granting suffrage to black males) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

By contrast, the 19th Amendment granting women suffrage was passed in 1919, 89 years ago. If Obama wins, hopefully it won't be another 60-odd years before a woman becomes president.

Friday, August 22, 2008

GenCon Report

Life's been mucho busy, which is why I haven't posted anything to my blog. I was considering even just taking it down, but Alana suggested I post my GenCon report to it.

I was at GenCon last week, from August 14 through 17. This was the first GenCon I'd attended since 2000, back when I was in Toronto and it was in Milwaukee. The purpose of the trip was to run events of This Favored Land, my Civil War roleplaying game supplement to Arc Dream's Wild Talents. My book is due out sometime next month.

I intended to have all my scenario stuff printed out on Monday, the 11th so that I'd have the 12th to pack and relax in order to get up early the next day. That didn't happen, and I was printing maps up until 10:15 pm. As such, I didn't leave West Monroe until 7:30 a.m. I made pretty good time, though, getting to Indy in just over 12 hours, including a lunch and a dinner stop. The irony of GenCon travel is that when it was in Milwaukee it took 12 hours to drive there from Toronto. It moved to Indy after I moved to Louisiana. Milwaukee is a two day trip from here, but while Indy is now down to 9 hours from Toronto it is 12 hours from West Monroe. I'm destined to always travel 12 hours to GenCon.

(For the record, the drive seemed to go by faster here. I think it's because the number of Interstate changes is a little more spread out, making for better breaks in the drive.)

This is the fastest GenCon I've ever attended. I think it has to do with running RPGs during the middle of the day (1 pm to 5 pm). When I ran miniatures events I spread them out so that I ran some of the events at night. I only had to handhold the players for about an hour, after which they were running things on their own. In an RPG I'm busy the full 4 hours. I enjoyed it, but it also makes the day seem to go by very fast.

I got to meet the folks at Arc Dream for the first time in person. Three of them (Shane Ivey the president, John Marron an editor, and Kevin Pezzano a writer) live in Birmingham, AL. We're planning to get together at some point, as it's only about a 5 or 6 hour shot across I-20 to get there from West Monroe. Shane even suggested bi-monthly game sessions. Not sure I could afford the gas for that.

Thursday night I visited with some friends (Mike Miserendino and Dean Gundberg) from my days running Ground Zero Games miniatures events. None of us could believe it was 8 years since I last saw them. I tried to catch them again Saturday night, but their games were done by then. This surprised me a little, mainly because a decade ago we had games running until about midnight a couple of times, or at least up until 10. As it was, I didn't get to play any miniatures games.

I did get to play a Call of Cthulhu game with Scott Glancy, one of the co-creators of Delta Green, along with Greg Stolze (inventor of the ORE system and fairly well known in RPG circles). We played members of the British 179th Tunelling Company during World War I. Much fun was had, and my character managed to avoid being eaten and remained sane! The scenario ("Dig for Victory!") is going to appear in a Pagan game book at some point. The game session is going to show up on Ross Payton's podcast web site.

My scenarios played very well. I didn't have anyone show up for my Thursday game, but when Ross couldn't make it to run a Monsters and Other Childish Things game (also by Arc Dream) I folded most of his players into my own scenario. On Friday, I ran the scenario for a father and son group that so enjoyed the game they pre-ordered my book. Saturday I had to make space for extra people in my adventure (Woohoo!). On Sunday I only had one player, but Shane Ivey jumped in and I ran it for the two of them. This was the first time I had run games for complete strangers, and it was a blast.

Shane and I discussed my next project, which is going to be a Godlike book about the First Special Service Force. Most of the Godlike campaigns are short, 34 to 60 pages, but Shane wants a full 128 page game book, which means about 80,000 to 100,000 words. Oh, and he still wants the two extra chapters for This Favored Land that I've been working on and he wants the two GenCon scenarios as expanded PDFs. I'm going to be a busy boy...

That was my GenCon in a nutshell. A couple of observations:

  • There were more kids (10 year olds and younger) there than I remember. They seemed generally well behaved.

  • The miniatures events were spread all over the place, which is too bad given that they are very much a visual hobby. The historicals were about a block and a half away, from what I heard, and I only saw two historical games the whole time I was there.

  • Not a lot of night time games. I've heard a number of people complaining that after 6 pm it was hard to find a game to get into, except for the occasional pickup game. Looks like a good opportunity if you want people to play in your game: run it from 6 to 10 or, better yet, 7 to 11.

  • There were a lot of good looking science fiction and science fantasy miniatures games. There were four or five contenders to Games Workshop type games, though the game mechanics looked looked better. The old Mutant Chronicles game is back, this time by Fantasy Flight.

  • Whoever came up with the leather and heavy cotton men's utility kilts -- complete with pockets! -- should be shot out of hand.

  • The Forge had a good selection of truly interesting RPGs. I picked up _Dread_ which uses a Jenga tower to simulate the dread felt in horror games. 3:16, a tongue-in-cheek "beat up the alients" RPG sold very well, but I thought it was a bit pricey at $25 considering what you got. A game based on the Warsaw ghetto won a big indie award (I was at the ceremony in a bar on Wednesday night).

  • There was no Elder Party rally this year for the presidential elections, partly to do with some controversy from 2000 or 2004, but I never got the full scoop about it. So, I guess Cthulhu is running for president by acclimation.

  • Finally, you can have a great time at GenCon without spending much on events. There are a lot of free games you can try, particularly if your friends bring some of their own games along.

I bought some neat stuff (of course). Here's a list:

  • Wild Talents Essential Edition (didn't actuall buy this; it was my comp playtest copy). The full rules for Wild Talents 2nd Edition, but with the background universe and a couple of (very good) essays removed. The full $40 hardback will be available this fall, but this edition, with just the rules, is a steal at $10 and if you played any of our games at GenCon you received a $5 off coupon for any purchase. Best deal of the convention!

  • A Dirty World, Greg Stolze's film noir roleplaying game using Arc Dream's One Roll Engine system.

  • Dread, a horror roleplaying game that uses a Jenga tower to add, uh, dread and tension to the game.

  • Memoir '44: "Operation Overlord" and the "Hedgrow Hell Battle Map". I'm a big fan of Memoir '44, which is rules light but still offers some nice tactical decisions. The "overlord" games are extra big games that require two sets of the rules, and sometimes two sets of the expansion packs! The "Operation Overlord" set provides cardstock counters instead of plastic figures, but for all the armies covered by the game. It also includes special "Overlord" cards. The battle map is double sided with all the terrain pre-printed, and comes with new rules and new truck models.

  • Monsterpocalypse. I sort of blundered into this. I was looking at some models in the Privateer Press booth before the dealer's room opened, only to discover that a line had formed ahead of me and eventually encompassed me. I asked what the line was for, and someone mentioned it was to buy Privateer Press stuff, particularly Monsterpocalypse. This is a collectible miniatures game about giant monsters destroying cities. Logan loves a similar game we have for the Playstation, and after hearing about the game from fans in the line, I ended up buying a set. Unfortunately the starter packs were sold out and we could really use another one to play, but we'll be able to manage with what we have so far. After buying the sets I picked up the rare GenCon exclusive figure for $2, and then I played a demo that netted me the GenCon demo exclusive figure.

  • Mr. Jack is a two player family game of hunting Jack the Ripper. It gets very good reviews and I've wanted this for a while.

  • Wings of War is a card game about World War I aerial combat. I'd heard mixed things about it, but the Arc Dream guys all played and enjoyed it, and talking to a woman at the Fantasy Flight booth sold me on it. It looks very easy and a lot of fun to play. I'm going to try and rope Logan into playing this weekend.

  • Black Goat of the Woods: an expansion for the Arkham Horror board game. I might have to haul this out later this weekend. Takes a while to set up and it isn't a short game, but it can be played solitaire.

  • Ten Creepy Freaks booster packs for Logan. This is a game he got into a couple of years ago that was soon discontinued. They were selling the boosters for $1 each.

  • Starship Troopers Miniatures Game and Starship Troopers Floorplans. I've had precious little time to paint miniatures this year, and so buying more miniatures for a setting I didn't already have was right out. I do have some trooper miniatures I can use with this game, I just need to buy some bugs. I may or may not do that, but the game was on clearance for $2, as were the floorplans (which I can use for roleplaying games).

  • More dice than you can shake a stick at.