Education Still Stinks, But Might be Getting Better

About eight years ago I wrote a short essay about how education has remained largely unchanged, aside from the introduction of mass education after the arrival of the printing press, since the Pyramids. This is a particularly bitter pill for me because I was one of those “square peg in a round hole,” “achievement seems to be below ability” students decades ago. Some people, notably biased like my mother, claim was I a gifted child. But at the same time, I seemed to have learning disabilities; for example, I wasn’t able to grasp making proper change in cash payments and was unable to read analog clock faces until I was in middle school.

And now at 51, I still wonder at how I was hobbled by this. My formal education, a bachelor of arts in history, says almost nothing about what I actually know: information technology. Anyway, I’m not really making any insightful comments about educational techniques or pedagogy here. At least none that haven’t been said a zillion times before by people much more learned that I. I still don’t have the Mandarin language course in a pill that science fiction promised me, but things are getting better in other areas–

 

Nasty, Gluey Chest Cold

So since the weekend, I got hit with a chest cold, which I’m pretty sure I caught either from my board gaming friends or a grocery store clerk Wednesday last week. It didn’t manifest in full force until the weekend–anyway, tedious aches and pains, dripping nose and phlegm-pire spewage–a constant reminder I’m made of meat like all y’all.

Anyway, that status report aside here are some cool short science fiction movies I found on the Web:

Udra: My RPG Campaign History in Several Parts

2001 to 2009: The City and The Circus

After two players left, and the arrival of a new one, after making the transition to D&D 3.0, and later 3.5, I had started two new threads “City of Doors” and “Circus of the Mighty.”

sigil01

An image of Sigil, the City of Doors. I have no idea how this was taken considering how tall that mountain is.

City of Doors wasn’t about Udra, instead it was based in D&D Planescape campaign. Planescape was one of the few prefab campaign backgrounds TSR made that I really liked. Mostly because it departed so strongly from so many fantasy tropes. Given the assumptions of how original AD&D 2nd Edition cosmology worked, Udra (My campaign) exists within a universe that’s part of the larger multiverse that Planescape was all about so, in that sense the two are ultimately related. I’ve have had several Udran characters (Beginning with Duke Theramir and several of his associates way back in the early 80s.) make trips to the Ethereal, Elemental, Astral, Abyssal and Baatorian planes of existence.

But in the City of Doors plot thread, I had a party of six heroes from various universes (With one, a human ranger called Sleen, from Udra.) in the prime material plane. This plot thread lasted for about two years of play, with the overall plot left unresolved. The players were mostly meticulous notetakers so, I have a vague idea where things left off.

Image of a Royal Postal Agent's Badge.

The RPA Badge of Arthur Trumblebone, Agent #0101, still MIA. Obviously the Roman letters are there for our benefit, I haven’t yet invented an Udran Alphabet.

One of these days, I shall start another thread here.

Circus of the Mighty, begun in late 2003, was a new campaign thread that I began with three participants, playing characters that were former members of an Udran traveling circus. Almost immediately two players dropped out but the remaining player went on join new players in a party of new characters who were officers in the newly formed Royal Postal Agency.

Significant Udran events in this period

  • The Circus is founded by a disillusioned wizard and two traveling circus performers, this would evolve into a squad of agents working for the newly formed Royal Postal Authority.
  • The Circus, as agents of the RPA, arrest, kill or capture many members of the “Dogs” Floyd Gang via an Orcish upending of a stagecoach and a magical showdown in the city of Vos Obyorn
  • The Circus destroys an orc pirate fleet and defeat the plans of Chebo the Drowned (Later discovered to not be dead and to be a lich!)
  • The Circus stops a 10,000 strong clay golem invasion force based in a ruined temple devoted to Vivistat, the Bringer of Doom Unexplained.
  • For these acts, all members of the Circus (With the exception of Sturj) are knighted and granted the Isle of Jars as payment for their deeds
  • The first expedition to Nyambe Tande in pursuit of the Marketh and his followers. This proved inconclusive.
  • The second expedition to Nyambe Tande in search of the Great Udamalore and Kosan ruins. This also proved inconclusive.
  • The reestablishment of trade, after an 800 year hiatus, with Nyambe Tande, known to Udrans as Darth Lom.

Significant Sigilian events in this period

  • Sleen, by no means a xenophobe, departs the company of Sklanthar Regulus and the Big Pink One to wander in the City of Doors. He is soon joined by a squad of lost, multiversal expatriates and wanderers.
  • They are soon find themselves a task to retrieve five stolen paintings, all believed to be multiversal doors, just like the doors Sigil is so famous for. They managed to recover two, maybe three?

Notable characters

  • Karin, Planescaper, an especially impatient dwarf warrior, nicknamed “Death in a Can”
  • Elstore, Planescaper, priest of Korporedon, ethnographer, biographer and anthropologist.
  • Leafturner Ellywick Neidlebuck, Planescaper, a gnome sorceress, unreservedly enthusiastic, rarely but notably binge drinks.
  • Sedris, Planescaper, a knight and nobleman, formerly of Harn, searching the outer planes for a fleeing criminal.
  • Sleen, Planescaper, a human ranger formerly of Udra, now a horizon walker wandering the outer planes
  • Aowyn, Planescaper, an elf very strongly of the Tolkien stamp.
  • Telwyn, human mage, formerly of the Big Pink One, rescued prisoner from a thrall of the shapeshifters.
  • Amos Sacerius, a former circus strongman and immigrant from the merchant states of Kaya Vua Samaki
  • Rand, a former circus tight rope walker and second story man.
  • Sir Thalin, a side-show wizard, frustrated former warrior and the Man in the Bronze Mask, plan man of the Circus. Agent #102.
  • Kels, savate specialist, devout of Molna. One to challenge the party to greater things. Agent #103.
  • Thantor, an eletum, a planar wanderer, not from Ednom itself. Eventually assigned to the Dead Letter Office. Agent #104.
  • Sir Arthur Trumblebone, human savate mage and letter carrier, gifted with superhuman dexterity. Now missing in action, considered the very model of a modern postal agent. Agent #101.
  • Sturj Barnaclesucker, half-orc pirate (now reformed), herpetologist, explorer, warrior. On the governing council of the Isle of Jars. Recently knighted. Agent #138.
  • Dame Hilda of Arren, Baroness of Jars, diplomat, negotiator, leader and mastermind. Now on Queen Ellen’s small council as Postmistress General Agent #1, promoted from #122.
  • Sir Mandark, half-elf rogue, one to wear iggaak, expert at designing, assembling and disarming traps. Agent #105.
  • Sir Dwalor, dwarf priest of Molna, stubborn, crude, taken by the shadow leopards deep in the heart of Nyambe Tanda. Agent #106. Presumed dead.
  • Sir Chingara Slashgood, elf ranger and all round badass archer. Agent #107.
  • Kinsaul, a demobilized cavalryman and member of the Royal Postal Agency Agent #108. Missing, presumed dead.

(Sigil image credit The Cage, a Planescape Wiki)

Particle Accelerators Around Black Holes?

An acrylic painting of an artificial ring around a black hole.

This is a painting of an artificial ring around a black hole. The concept art is by Philippe Bouchet. It’s not entirely accurate as there would be large optical distortions, especially on the far side of the ring, caused by the hole itself.

Are extraterrestrial civilizations building particle accelerators around black holes, and can we detect their use? Astrophysicist Brian Lacki at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study speculates that we may actually ask and answer such questions. He proposes that if such accelerators are operating they will generate extremely high energy neutrinos. These neutrinos would have energies equal to ten to the twenty-eighth power (10^28) electron volts. This is a septillion times more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider.

The point is that, aside from the Big Bang itself, there are no known natural sources of neutrinos in that energy range. Lacki thinks that if we can find some, they are almost certainly generated by artificial means. They can serve as observational proof for questions concerning SETI, that hyperadvanced alien civilizations exist elsewhere in the universe. Lacki thinks we can build the means to detect the passage of such neutrinos by strewing a 100,000 hydrophones across the ocean floor. These neutrinos are so energetic that, unlike their lower energy cousins, they actually interact pretty strongly with ordinary matter. This means we’ll actually be able to hear the noise as they pass through water.

Another possibility, although less sensitive, is detect the secondary showers of particles as such high energy neutrinos make as they smash into the Moon’s surface.  And such observations are already under way with the NuMoon experiment.

(Image credit Philippe Bouchet.)

Dwarves in Udra and How They Differ From Those of Cliche

Grimgnaw

The cliche of dwarves is short, burly, bearded miners, masons and reclusive mountain dwellers following their vaguely Norse or Scots Celtic culture, making you think of Brian Blessed, if Blessed were short and stumpy. They are veritable tanks in battle and at the bar. But I don’t follow that in my game.

Udran dwarves are descended from the occasionally evil, occasionally cannibalistic, utucheckulu of Darth Lom. Generally most are lawful neutral rather than lawful good. Unlike their Lomite cousins, and unlike virtually all dwarfish cliches, they have an enormous fascination with magic, especially in combat. This is why they favor monk as a class over fighter. And those that cannot be monks, tend to be become wizards or sorcerers.

To further distinguish themselves from their Nyambian heritige, they tend to shave all body hair, often even the eyebrows, only the women are the exception to this, retaining short bobbed or cornrowed hair, eyebrows and beards occasionally. Generally a male Udran dwarf never lets his beard or hair grow out except as a form of shame, carelessness or penance. There are Udran dwarves who go about bearded but these are looked at as prisoners, hooligans, vagabonds and ne’er-do-wells.

A good example of an Udran dwarf can be found in the Neverwinter Nights character, Grimgnaw. They are short, dusky and ascetic, with strong influences from traditional African shamans, diviners and martial artists. Unlike their Nyambian cousins and unlike their D&D counterparts, they favor monk or wizard as a class. As such, they are always literate, often in several languages. The music they favor is something very similar to Mongol Throat Singing, kora harps, mbiras and mouth harps.

Aside from their different outlook and favored class, they have all the same advantages of dwarfs as described in the Players Handbook. As they have departed strongly from the traditions of Nyambe, they don’t have the advantages outlined in that source book.

Accidents Don’t Happen

Actually this is another test post to see if this Facebook mirroring nonsense works. Autopublish works just fine with Diaspora*. However the Facebook plugin documentation wasn’t entirely clear so, I forgot a step in getting things to mirror on Facebook. If all goes well, this should appear in FB.

This kind of status is very Twitter-like. Bah! To make it worth everyone’s while, let me embed some music:

So Let’s Get to It

It’s been nearly a year and half since my post at the mighty Farlops Industries and instead of boring you with reasons why this happened I’m just going to jump right in.

First some highly local news, I’ve added some new plugins to WordPress that should finally beat me into joining the 21st century and this social media world. With these tools, I should be able to post here and have that automatically mirrored to Facebook (Boo!) and Diaspora* (Yay!)

Next, I’m going to try something I haven’t done before, embedding video from third parties. So an article I read in IEEE Spectrum about a new kind of noninvasive brain-computer interface, prompted me to find a related video by the same research team. So I’m going to embed that and see how it works.

Udra: My RPG Campaign History in Several Parts

A mirror of mental prowess

See parts one and two.

1994 to 2001: The Lean Years with Sudden Burst of Activity

During this period, I was working a number of different jobs until I became very busy working at Microsoft as a temp in 1996. For a long period between 1994 and 1998 I wasn’t running my campaign very much. Then in 1999, after some cajoling from my friends Toby Shaw and Wade Tyler, I gathered a group of reliable players and started a new plot thread.

Significant events in this period

  • Sklanthar, Xerxes and several others make a brief visit to the Sigil, the City of Doors in pursuit of Mr. Farlops, the Demon Prince to return his amulet to him.
  • Sklanthar suffers massive cultural shock from his visit to this city.
  • Upon his return to Udra, he buries or destroys two known gates to the city, considering knowledge of its existence as too dangerous.
  • Sklanthar and Xerxes decide to enter a long period of sabbatical and contemplation.
  • The marriage of King Theramir to a long lost woman, Tyrathect Zeq’umthetho, missing for nearly two decades and suspected of being the mother of Theramir’s son.
  • The arrival of Andru and the Big Pink One mercenary company in Boatsburg. A town near Koyaanisqatsi, the holy compound and temple of Ummanah
  • Andru has a secret and requires help. Heroes are gathered in Boatsburg to aid Andru in his quest.
  • Immediate dissent in the newly forming party as Captain Striker strangles Jarvis’ pseudodragon familiar.
  • Bent on revenge Moose and Jarvis secretly call in a few favors from the embarrassingly powerful mage Limetor.
  • Sergeant Randal Scott is mysteriously decapitated in broad daylight in front of many witnesses.
  • In an attack of paranoia, Sklanthar mobilizes his holy warriors for a war against the Queen, whom he suspects as being behind Hendar’s death.
  • The crisis is averted with many painful and protracted negotiations and the gods finally showing some misguided spine!
  • A company is floated consisting of Captain Striker, Sergeant Scott, Sete Udes, Telwin, Moose and Andru and the crew of the Good Ship Danny Goodman
  • The dangerous journey is made to Ravensland to find the missing artificer Marvek, Andru’s maker
  • Combat with alien shapeshifting doppelgangers deep in the frozen north of Ravensland.
  • A strange temple is found deep in the frozen north. Under the very heavy aurora activity, the temple is sealed.
  • Notes are found. Marvek is suspected of having been taken over by the alien shapeshifters and fleeing to Darth Lom.

Notable characters

  • Sklanthar Quintilia Regulus. The first player character ever to be a cleric. A priest of Ummanah. The Active Reformer.
  • Xerxes Zendesium. A Holy Warrior of Ummanah. Sklanthar’s right hand.
  • Andru, a fully sapient flesh golem, with a terrible secret, made by the famed archmage Marvek.
  • Sete Udes, a fire mage and fanatic of the Sun God Ummanah
  • Telwyn, (Nicknamed: “Cookie.”) The company cook of the Big Pink One mercenary company and wizard of some repute.
  • Captain Striker, Commander of the Big Pink One mercenary company. A huge stickler for rules, clean paperwork and regulation number of boot laces.
  • Sargent Scott, Aside from Telewyn, the sole surviving member of the Big Pink One mercenary company.
  • Grim Jack, a dwarven thief, cursed with a deep love of all things copper. Later cured of this curse.
  • Hendar the Heroic, captain of Sklanthar’s body guard. Decapitated and now dead.
  • Theramir: My stepbrother renamed Ring Poco after a few months of play. He liked this name better.
  • Limetor aka Clark Kent: A powerful human wizard and part-time orc outlaw. It’s a long and embarrassing story.
  • Moose the Braindead: A superhumanly strong but superhumanly stupid dwarf.
  • Cookie Jarvis: A human wizard with a pseudodragon familiar. Now just named “Jarvis.”

The departure of two players and a new rules system

By the year 2000, two of my players, Toby and Alex, left the country and left Seattle respectively. This pretty much cut the Marvek thread short. But before that, Alex introduced me to the new rules system Wizards of the Coast had built for D&D after buying TSR in 1997 (WotC was then bought by Hasbro in 1999.), D&D 3.0, a complete overhaul of the AD&D Second Edition. During the year 2000 until 2003, I converted my campaign to the new system. This takes us to the next chapter in Udran gaming history, 2001 to 2008, the Circus years.

The elves of Udra and how they differ from Tolkien and traditional D&D

A painting of a wakyambi elfElves, in general, are rare in Udra, being outnumbered by other humanoid species. They are really only found in any numbers at all in the Talithanth Forest on the middle east coast of Udra. This area, by royal edict and ancient treaty, is given to them to rule as they see fit. There are three types of elves in Udra, all of which speak the elven language:

  • The water breathing sea elves, which are the least common. They the claim that they came to Udra before the Wakyambi did by swimming across the deep ocean.
  • The wakyambi elves originally from Darth Lom (Also known as “Nyambe Tande” in Lomite.) who are marked by their dark brown skins, dark brown eyes and tails. These claim themselves as the progenitor elves, the mothers and fathers of all elves. These are less common but they can be seen around Udra if you look.
  • The most common are the tailless, occasionally mad, wood elves of Urda. Their history is youngest. The story goes, more than a thousand years ago, that by coming to be accepted by and connected to the forest spirits and gods of Udra, the wakyambi lost their tails, grew more prone to bouts of insanity and became the wood elves.

Udran elves, don’t follow a quasi-medieval European culture but instead follow precolonial, native African cultures like, Egypt, Mali, Zimbabwe or Meroë. They love jewelry made of gold and lapis, usually of quasi-Egyptian bird, hawk and sun motifs.  Udran elves have an affinity for magic but are more likely, especially the wakyambi elves for ancient historical reasons, to follow divine magic rather than sorcery, wizardry and arcane sources. They’re favored class is cleric, not wizard. (Other than that, Wood Elves follow the specifications in the PHB. Wakyambi follow the specifications in Chris Dolunt’s Nyambe: African Adventures. Sea Elves follow specifications given in the MM.)

There is some friction between the different cultures of elves in Udra. The Wakyambi are viewed by the other elves as rather haughty and aloof, even for an Elf–although this may be hard for a non-elf to notice. The Wood Elves are viewed, although this is never said publicly, certainly not in the hearing of non-elves, as betrayers of the old ways, upstarts and as dangerously prone to insanity. The Sea Elves are especially xenophobic, mistrustful and slow to befriend, even for elves.

There are some elves that have come to prominence in human lands, one is Duke Theramir, a Wood Elf and the ruler of the city and canton of Nah. Although there has been no proof, it has been rumored that in his youth, nearly a century ago, before he came to power, he was prone to the insanity of his kind. Another is Lord Mandark, a half-elf, a rogue and a troubleshooter for Queen Ellen and, again, prone to some eccentricities.

There are no Grey Elves, Wild Elves or High Elves, as described in the Monster Manual, anywhere on the world of Ednom, not even in myth or legend. They don’t exist.

But just recently D&D’s infamous, subterranean Drow elves have been discovered–hiding deep in caverns below the city of Waylon. The Drow, even among the histories of progenitor Wakyambi elves are pure myth. Only among the oldest stories tell of pitch black skinned elves of white hair in Darth Lom. The story goes they are not of Ednom and not of the gods of Ednom. The story is they were strange allies summoned by the Kosan more than 60,000 years ago. The story is they were alien creatures coming from some other world only the gods knew of, perhaps another universe or plane of existence but, until now, not one exists anywhere in Udra.

The halflings of Udra and how they differ from Tolkien and traditional D&D

The cliche of halflings in D&D is that they are jolly burglars and shoeless, gourmand hippies, following the vaguely Irish or Welsh culture given them by Tolkien.

This is not so in Udra. In Udra, all the halflings came from the agogwe of Darth Lom. If their culture could be described in one sentence it would be this: African, dour, heretic burning Puritans all dressed in black hats and small swatches of white. Another way to think about them is to imagine the results of the following question, what if Frodo kept the One Ring? Imagine if he used it to forge a fanatical and xenophobic empire bent on ruling all of Middle-Earth?

A ridiculous image, to be sure, I mean halflings don’t have the strength and size to defeat the big folk in direct combat, right? But then again, neither do humans against giants and yet giants are rare and humans rule everything in most fantasy stories so, how does that work? Usually the humans don’t face the giants in direct combat unless vastly outnumbering them or, more often, just outsmarting them and finding weaknesses.

Udran halflings are a bit like that.

They are ambitious, rather than shy and retiring. They really want to rise high in the world rather let it pass them by.

They are highly disciplined, given to religious asceticism and spartan life. They are secretive, shrewd and cagey. They only tend to fight when the odds are overwhelmingly in their favor. They are mostly “good,” in a Jerry Falwell, Cotton Mather, Salem Witch Trials sense of being “good.” If they are rogue or criminal, they tend to be mastermind bank robbers and con artists, rather than second story men. If they are military, they tend to favor hugely massed Roman and Greek infantry tactics and the largest horses they can safely ride, rather than guerrilla tactics. If they favor the divine or the arcane, they tend to go for the most ambitious, scholarly, dangerous, esoteric, and above all, powerful magical training or tend to be fanatical inquisitors, religious teachers or ruthless, controlling theocrats.

Udran hobbits look a bit like this photo of puritans.

They are well aware of their limitations and tend to always put themselves in situations where they have a clear advantage. They’ll cheat. If a Udran halfing soldier is in a stand up fight with a human warrior, you can be sure the halfing is fighting with a poisoned blade or has worked out some way to push the human off a cliff. They are short, but somehow exude an reputation darkness, lawfulness and just vaguely creepy. “Cute” is usually the last word you’ll think of.

They aren’t barefoot. They tend to wear the biggest, highest hip boots they can get away with or big buckled shoes.

Of course there are some who defy this cultural stereotype.  You will find some halfings in Udra that follow the Tolkienesque idiom and others that are more primal like their ancient agogwe roots but most are short,  Mennonites or Puritans.

Their halfling advantages are a bit different from those in the book. They tend to be stronger and less dextrous, so no bonus for dexterity or penalty for strength. They favor the class of cleric, not rogue. They have very thick and tough toe and finger nails, these are usually clipped short but can be allowed to grow giving them advantages to dig and fight with. But other than that, they are more or less the same in their halfling traits.