Saturday, December 31, 2011

Harvest 2011

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About 30 kilos of apples were turned into one cake, 15 litres of apple juice and a lot of raw apple snacks.
Three kilos of Mirabelle plum became one cake, the rest was destroyed during a Cthulhu session.
About a kilo of European Cornell was turned into juice. Next year, I'll go for jelly.
My balcony gave me Swiss chard and potatoes. A wasteland around the corner delivered a huge amount of blackberries. Blackberry crumble - you need to try this.

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And to end the year, I picked tea apples today and made jelly and apple sauce. Red apple sauce, how cool is that.
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Not bad for someone living in a big city without a garden, I think. As much as I hate the term, but urban harvesting is definitely worth the time and it's amazing what you find if you just look.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Whiteout

Whiteout is a comic series by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. I already wrote about Rucka's series Queen and Country.

Whiteout takes place in Antarctica, following U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko in her investigation of a murder at McMurdo station. The second part Melt has Carrie return to Antarctica, looking for Russian mercenaries who stole warheads illicitly stored at a Russian science station.

The illustrations are black and white, fitting for the landscape of snow and ice the action takes place in. There's nothing harder to draw than a whole lot of white emptiness and Steve Lieber does it extremely well. I also like his instantly recognisable characters (also not easy to do when everyone is wearing hooded parkas and ice gear) and the attention to detail.

The story is fast-paced, especially in Melt. I did figure out who did it fairly early in Whiteout, but that didn't dampen my enjoyment. It was still fun to see how and when Carrie figures it out and to see what she does with her knowledge. In both books, there's no easy way for her to solve the crime, a compromise must be made. There's a lot of grey in all that white after all.

Whteout is my 51st and Whiteout: Melt my 52nd book for the Library Challenge.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bjorn Again



I like the heaven's door-wheel of fortune in particular.

Baader-Meinhof-Komplex

The German Autumn was before my time, but I do remember the activities of the third generation RAF. The whole thing was pretty much ignored in my history classes unfortunately, so it was when I first saw the brilliant documentary Todesspiel that I learned more about this time.

Stefan Aust's book Der Baader-Meinhof-Komplex is a standard work and I've read before, more than once. If you want to learn about the RAF, then this is the best place to start. The book will give you an overview of the chronology, up to the suicides of the Stammheim prisoners, and of the persons involved, on both sides of the law.

It's a surprisingly easy read for such a complex subject and at times, it reads like a crime novel, without being lurid. I value the matter of fact-tone the book maintains, with few exceptions. There are numerous conspiracy theories, outright lies and many books about the subject follow an agenda, more or less obviously. Aust writes fairly neutral, especially for someone who was at times personally involved.

I can recommend the film based on the book as well. There's a scene that tells you a lot about the first generation of the RAF. Baader and Ensslin have their car stolen and Baader totally loses it, screaming obscenities at the thieves who took his (!) car (that he stole). Ensslin stays calm and tells him "It doesn't matter, baby. We'll steal a new one."

Stammheim is another great film, about the trial at Stammheim prison. It's based on the official records made during the trial. You get to see the clash between the justice system and the prisoners who downright refuse to recognise the system - not something the judge or indeed German society as a whole dealt well with.

I found a quote by Gudrun Ensslin made during the trial to be very enlightening as well. "We don't discuss this with you. We will only discuss this with people who agree with us." I think that this is characteristical for the RAF as well: a group of people who always agrees with each other and who looked only for further agreement in other people. Other opinions were not accepted, especially if they came from within the group (rare enough). If you're not with us, you're against us, taken to extremes. I can't help but notice the similarities between the RAF and religious cults.

Der Baader-Meinhod-Komplex is my 50th book for the Library Challenge

Friday, December 23, 2011

Myth Comics

Happle Tea is a comic about mythology and the first one I saw was this one. How could I not love that? And it really pays to read the author's comments on the comics, they are a quick course in myths, monsters and history.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

IQ84

Huh, I thought I had blogged about the first two parts when I read them. It seems I didn't. Which is just as well, because this is a book that should be read without any long pauses between the parts.

Aomame, a young woman, kills the leader of a religious sect and finds herself in an alternate reality, with only subtle differences (including two moons). Tengo, a math teacher and part-time writer, has heavily edited/ghostwritten a book by a young schoolgirl, Fuka-Eri, who has ties to the sect. Tengo also crossed over into the alternate reality and both he and Aomame are hunted by the sect, who have been hit hard both by the loss of their leader and by the book which revealed some of their deepest secrets.

And now I remember why I didn't blog the first two parts. Even with the whole story read, I find it extremely difficult to summarise the story in any meaningful way. That's always hard with Haruki Murakami's books, but especially so with IQ84.

It's a slow book and if you're looking for action, you'll get very little. You will also have to live with a story that doesn't neatly connect all the loose ends, at the end there are open questions. Which is a lot less annoying than it could be, the story was never meant to be fully explained and that's part of the charm.

It soon becomes clear that Aomame and Tengo, although they have really met only once as children, are meant for each other and the story steers them towards a final meeting with many near misses and coincidences. I liked that, it had the feel of a Greek tragedy, who steer towards an unhappy ending, with many chances to avoid it. Aomame's and Tengo's ending is not a tragic one and possibly a happy one, but typically for Murakami, there are no guarantees.

I liked Tamaru, the bodyguard who protects Aomame after she killed the cult leader. He's a charater who doesn't seem like much at first, but the more he chooses to reveal about himself, the more interesting he gets. He feels like he should have a book of his own.

IQ84 is my 49th book for the Library Challenge.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

More Luxon



Benjamin Luxon again, together with Bill Crofut. Brilliant voices and musicians.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Shadowrun Rat's Nest: Honeypot

Setting and characters are here.
Last time, the group decided to raid the Picas, a kiddie gang that had been making trouble.

 ----------------------------------------------------

I said I had a baaad feeling about this whole gang raid thing. Man, I was so right.

Whistler had found out a few useful things about the kiddie gang, like the location of their headquarters. Apart from Splash, Blaster, Kerry, Liz and me, we took a couple of gangers. Whistler would serve as scout. Gargle had a bone to pick with the Picas anyway and as far as the others were concerned, anything for a decent fight. This is especially true for the orcs and so we set out on motorcycles to the sound of Rivet playing war songs on his bagpipes. Yes, that was about as conspicuous as it sounds, but I didn't kid myself that this was going to be a surprise attack anyway.


*It's a trap! Click to spring it*


Splash stayed behind at some distance from the warehouse that the Picas use as headquarters, to set up a drone that would gather additional information for us. By that time, we had already been spotted. I decided to split up, to approach from two sides and from about then, things went downhill fast.

The group that went straight ahead had its way cut off and we heard shots. Blaster, Kerry, the two orcs Rip and Slicer and me went around and promptly lost our way, maps are just not very reliable here. By that time, we had already lost contact with Whistler, but I tried to tell myself that this was the fault of the at best spotty Matrix connection.

Splash assembled a map, but it took her a few minutes. During that time, we discovered the burning bus that had been dragged into the street and that cut off the first group's way back. To get to them, we would have to take a detour.

Rip took off after one of the Picas who shot at us (not that he hit anyone) and dove after the kid through a basement window, where he got stuck. By the time Blaster and Slicer had pulled him out, the kid had already emptied his gun into Rip's face and this time, he had aimed much better. I doubt that Rip would have survived that, the steel bar that rammed into his body when he was pulled out only killed him more quickly. Blaster tossed a stick of dynamite into the basement, so we can probably assume that there were casualties on both sides.

Splash managed to open a connection to Liz and she told me that they had been attacked and forced into a building about 100 meters from us. All of them except Gilette were unharmed, but Liz warned us of a trap. No surprise there.

By the time we had rounded the corner, we could hear a young girl's screams from a small alley. One of the Picas, a girl of about 13 years and highly pregnant, was lying on the ground, covered in blood. Here's why it sometimes sucks to be a doctor: this screamed TRAP!, but there was no way I was just ignoring the chance that she really was hurt. 

Kerry offered to come as well to give me cover, but Slicer was having none of that and insisted on driving into the alley with his motorcycle. What seemed to be just a big puddle turned out to be a hole deep enough to swallow both the bike and Slicer and the situation was not improved by the pipebomb thrown out of a window right into the hole.

With Kerry giving us cover, Blaster and I managed to pull Slicer out of the whole. He actually survived the explosion, but he needs some serious medical attention. The girl was still screaming and I inched closer, my gun drawn. When I squatted down beside her, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and was just quick enough to shoot two Picas, killing one of them. I had my back turned on the girl and that was an almost fatal mistake, she pulled a gun and shot me in the back twice.

The armor coat caught the brunt of it, but it was still enough to knock the breath out of me. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, though, and I managed to take the gun from her, putting her in a stranglehold until she passed out. I would have loved to keep her under with a tranq patch, but who knows what drugs she took, she clearly was on something. Meanwhile, Blaster knocked out the Pica I hadn't killed.

--------------------------------------------------

More next time, sometime next year.  I have no idea how and if we are going to get out of this mess, but I'm enjoying myself.

When we discovered the girl, I called it. I knew she was going to shoot me when I went to help her. Neil may be a shadow doc, but he still feels bound by the oath he has sworn, so he had to walk into that trap. I dig that kind of stuff, hard choices is a big part of what roleplaying is about for me.

In case you are wondering what kind of a name Pica is: it's the scientific name for the magpie genus and the gangers look like that, with black and white colours. I'm a birder, so I knew that, which earned me a look of disbelief from the GM. Just call me Lady of Random Facts.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shadowrun Rat's Nest: Masel Tov!

Setting and characters are here

I got a few hours of sleep and a wakeup call at 6am: Kimba, one of our cyber prostitutes, had been plugged in overnight and they couldn't wake her. I'm frankly crap at anything involving the Matrix, so I needed help. Our local hackers were almost all out on business, except Splash and Han Solo and once we had kicked the door to his container down, it turned out Han didn't look much better than Kimba.

We brought Han and Kimba to the clinic and plugged in to find out what went wrong with them. We got help from Caidian, who hangs around with the hackers and managed to trace Kimba and Han. What we found was...sick. Take a look, if you want. You've been warned.

FYI, the hippogrif is Splash, Neon Man is Caidian, Michelin Man Blaster and the dragon tank is a program of Splash's.


*loading sim*

A room resembling a cross between an emergency room and a night club, with a stage where a band of surgical instruments plays Klezmer, Nippon sytle. Across the room, two people are having sex on a huge bed that looks like an autopsy table, while a masked surgeon is performing brain surgery on them. He removes slips of paper from their open heads and puts in new ones, while directing their movements with strings, like puppets.

Entering the room are a huge hippogriff, a stick figure with a lab coat and a medical bag and another figure, shining in neon colours, along with something that looks like the lovechild of a dragon and a tank. They are met by a masked geisha and the hippogriff produces invitation cards, which the geisha accepts with a smile, a bow and a cheery Masel Tov!

For a moment, they just stand and stare at the scene, then Neon Man produces a machine gun and shoots at the surgeon, missing completely. The surgeon turns, showing his face to be a Kabuki Guy Fawkes, but he continues his surgery, ignoring the intruders - who have been joined by Michelin Man.

Lab Coat Man moves over to the bed and starts to cut through the strings attached to the pair. Menawhile, the hippogriff and the tank dragon attack the surgeon, while Michelin Man gets into a fight with the surgical instruments who have turned on the group...all the while still playing Klezmer.

The surgeon is very much unimpressed, but he does flinch when Michelin Man grabs a clarinet from the band and starts first to play counter to the rhythm of the band and then to play into the surgeon's ear. Neon Man gets attacked by more surgical instruments and disappears, while the surgeon is apparently done and begins to close the heads of the pair on the bed.

The continuing attacks on the surgeon by the hippogriff and the tank dragon finally show an effect: the surgeon's shape grows grotesquely distorted until he is sucked out of the room.

Lab Coat man opens up the heads of the pair again and starts to sift through the paper, removing the notes the surgeon put in and restoring the original contents of their heads.

*end sim*

Brain surgery is not my strong suit, but both Kimba and Han Solo woke up and seemed fine. They didn't remember anything except meeting online and a very pleasant feeling. Kimba had a strong craving for vanilla icecream, though, and Han said that he had some words stuck in his head in a language he didn't know. On a whim, I said vanilla ice cream in Japanese and they both flinched, the word was enough to cause a reaction. So I either missed something or the black ice program had already made changes that are beyond repair. We're thinking that it was an attempt at brainwashing them, who knows for what purpose.

And speaking of missed something: Faye`s meat puppet program was activated remotely while we were busy operating. She grabbed a syringe and would have injected me with it if Blaster, who had gone offline already, hadn't grabbed her. She claims she cannot remember anything and I believe her. The syringe was filled with a stimulant and it would have been unpleasant, but not lethal, so that seems like a fairly desperate attempt...considering that there are much nastier things here to use.

The council decided to upgrade Matrix security as much as possible and to keep everyone off the Matrix for tonight. We still have the code that the ice tried to implant into Kimba and Han, but none of use can make any sense of it. A psychology softskill would help and I can get my hands on one, but it will take a few days. Which is actually a good thing because we need some time to get our hands on that kind of money. Carrie suggested a raid on the gang that has been making trouble around here anyway (the ones that Blaster encountered), that would kill two birds with one stone. Although I can't say I feel very confident about being a part of this. It's not that I can't hold my own I a fight, but this is different, planning it like that.

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The first real adventure for our Rat's Nest gang. If you haven't done so, definitely listen to the Klezmer I linked, it's a vital part of the whole WTF-effect we had.The Mazel Tov-Geisha was finally enough to reduce us to helpless giggles.

It was all very strange, but very cool and I enjoyed playing in the Matrix, creativity and bending the rules is important here. None of us except Splash's player are any good at Matrix combat, but we could still use what was there to reach our goal. 

What I really dig about this whole round is that it's not the typical Shadowrun scenario: meet Johnson, accept assignment, do the work, report back to Johnson. Which can be a lot of fun, but I love the whole community we have to move in and the chance to play out daily life for the characters.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Krabat

Krabat by Otfried Preußler is a version of the old Krabat legend. Krabat is a young beggar who is taken on as an apprentice by the miller of Schwarzkollm. He soon discovers that the miller practices dark magic and teaches it to his journeymen as well. Of course there's a price to be paid for that: once a year one of the journeymen dies, a part of the pact the miller has with the devil. Krabat starts to think about how he can escape from the mill.

The book has the strong, clear language of a fairy tale, fitting for a re-telling of such an old story. It's easy to lose yourself in this book, with its slow rhythm and vivid characters. The miller is a very eerie character, especially since many things are only hinted at when it comes to him and his secrets.

Another thing I like about Krabat are the descriptions of the everyday life at the mill, a life that has been lost for a long time. You can just imagine yourself stepping into the mill...although you may not want to, considering the consequences.

Preußler himself wrote Krabat as a tale about power and its temptations and it can certainly be read that way. But it works just as well as a story about good and evil (there's very little grey in this story) or as a modern version of a simple folktale. Although I always wonder, is there such a thing as a simple folktale? I don't think so.

Krabat is my 48th book for the Library Challenge

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dracula's Guest

Dracula's Guest is a collection of short stories by Bram Stoker. The most famous one is the one that gave the collection it's title and may or may not be a chapter of Dracula that had been excised from the novel. Whatever the truth may be, it's deliciously creepy on its own.

The Squaw is much more bloodthirsty, very much so considering the time it was written. An American tourist kills a kitten and is later killed himself in an "accident" involving the mother cat and an iron maiden. Gruesome.

Crooken Sand is hilarious, until the twist ending. Roald Dahl would be proud of that story involving another American who decided to explore his Scottish heritage to the embarrassment of his family while visiting the Highlands.

The Judge's House is one of the most creepy stories I know, with a student encountering evil in a rat-filled lonely house. I don't recommend reading that one in the dark. It has its share of purple prose, although that may be the fault of the translation I have read and in any case it doesn't really disrupt the flow of the story.

Dracula's Guest is my fourth book for the Ireland Challenge. You can read it online here

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby joins the list of books I absolutely recognise as brilliantly written, but didn't like anyway.
There were scenes I enjoyed, the one where Gatsby finally meets his adored Daisy in particular, it's sad and awkward and hilarious all at once. It's also one of very few occasions where the characters actually are (more or less) truthful to each other.

And that's my problem with the novel: here's a bunch of people who don't seem to be capable of not deceiving each other and themselves for one minute, who seems to find it more comfortable to live lies, even if they are unhappy. It really, really got on my nerves and I had very little patience or sympathy for the characters and their problems. I have no problems with characters I don't like, because usually I can relate to them, even to the most evil ones, but I found that extremely difficult with any on the characters in The Great Gatsby.

But at least the lies were lived to their bitter consequence, I have to give the book that. No happy ending there.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is my 47th book for the Library challenge

Friday, December 9, 2011

Oysterband

We saw the Oysterband last night and as always, they were brilliant. The location was a small one, only a couple of hundred people, and pretty much everyone knew all the words to all their songs. The band seemed to have just as much fun as the audience and the last song was Put Out the Lights, played acoustic. Here's a video from another concert of the same song:


The Oysterband and June Tabor are nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2012 with their new album Ragged Kingdom. If you have the chance to see them live, then do it. They have this energy and love for their music that makes their concerts so very enjoyable, for me they are hands down the best band to see live (along with the very different Deine Lakaien).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Artworks I'd Steal: Green Devil

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5c/Michael_Pacher_004.jpg

My grandmother had a huge bible I was fascinated with and I remember this image in particular. I named it The Devil with the Green Butt and it took me quite a lot of digging to find it again. Let me tell you, those search words turn up some weird result on Google.

It's a painting by the 15th century Austrian artist Michael Pacher and it's usually called "St. Augustine and the Devil" - although some sources say it's St. Wolfgang. The book is the book of vices. It belongs to an altarpiece showing four Church Fathers and it's on the back of the panel showing St. Augustine, so it would have been visible when the altar was closed.

I quite like the unusual, grotesque devil and I've never seen anything quite like it, not even in Bosch's or Brueghel's paintings.  Is it me or does he have flames coming out of his ears?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Shadowrun: Rat's Nest

I recently joined a second Shadowrun group. We play in Seattle (surprise) in the Redmond Barrens and the GM created a squatter's town in the Rat's Nest, the big waste dump in the barrens. We'll call the town the Rat's Nest as well for simplicities sake. It's much more of a community that the original Rat's Nest described in theSeattle 2072 sourcebook.

The people live in cargo containers and the whole thing resembles nothing so much as a mining town in the Wild West. There's an Irish pub, people breed rats and roaches for food and make a living by scavenging for usable stuff among the waste. The place is surprisingly hot in the Matrix, due to a couple of hackers, and there's a ton of AR around, a good way to brighten up this shabby place.

Player characters are:
Blaster, a member of the Hellhounds who was picked up by the very attractive and very talented mechanic Kerry after he crashed his machine on an oil spill (put there by some kiddie gangers, who may live to regret this).

Splash, a hacker who arrived here on the run from the corp she used to work for. She's found work as a hacker, but would prefer to use her talents as a rigger.

Rivet, a Scottish/Irish (things are a bit unclear there) ork, member of the Scrappers, the gang of the Rat's Nest. He's a blacksmith and manufactures much of the Scrappers' armour.

Painless/Neil, a shadow doc who has lived at the Rat's Nest for about eight years now. He's a very capable surgeon, but cut short his career with making some bad decisions while being high as a kite. The Rat's Nest now feels pretty much like home to him and he's managed to scrounge, liberate and buy enough for a surprisingly well-equipped clinic. With the help of a medic and a nurse (Liz), he does his best to keep the population of the Rat's Nest healthy. Well, alive. He also has taken in a young man called Whistler who showed a promising talent and interest in working at the clinic.

Neil's Diary - hack at own risk

November 28th 2071
It's raining, but at least the power's up and it's reasonably warm inside. I heard that our newest arrival was willing to sell the ambulance she came in. It cost me less than I planned and Monkeywrench gave me a good deal on turning my van into a much less conspicuous ambulance. The supplies will come in handy as well, of course. Especially since Liz hasn't been able to get any drugs I would be willing to use, presenting me with a bag full of who knows what kind of pills.

And speaking of Liz, I'm not sure how much longer that will last. She's good, there's no question about that, but what use is the best nurse if she's too drunk and high to stand up when I need her?

Anyway. Apart from Splash (Ambulance Girl), there has been one other new arrival - not here to stay, though. Blaster, a ganger, who seems to be Kerry's latest boyfriend...after making the facts of life forcibly clear to another member of his gang (my first patient that night). Kerry did the same for Liz, who's sometimes a bit too frank for her own good and who obviously didn't listen to me when I told her not to use her shock hand when it's wet. Two more patients, but they were only knocked out.

The bar fight later on was much more productive. Blaster handled himself well against one of our local trolls, so that should bring him at least some respect if he decides to stick around. No-one was seriously hurt, although it would have been nice if Liz had been in a condition to do more than giggle drunkenly at the patients (I threw her out).

Ah crap, the power's out. I guess I'm going to bed and I'm hoping for a quiet night, if warm is too much to ask. But what else is new.


----------------------------------------------------

The first session introduced the characters to each other and we had the chance to meet other locals, like Growler, the owner of the Irish pub and leader of the local gang. I imagine him like Brendan Gleeson in Gangs of New York - not someone to mess with. The barfight was a good way to get to know the rules, at least for Blaster's player, who was the only one of the group who did not hide under a table.

It was basically roleplaying with little dice action, just to get a feel for the place and it was a lot of fun. Things are about to get serious next time, though.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Capoeira

I'm creating a new character for our Call of Cthulhu 1923 round and I decided to give him the martial arts skill. I never had a Cthulhu character who knew anything about martial arts, so that would be something new for me. I thought aloud about what kind I was going to use and Mr Bookscorpion suggested Capoeira.

Cool. It took me a while to come up with a plausible story that allowed the character to learn this and still end up in Arkham, but I managed, a crash course in Brazilian history included. After a further crash course in Capoeira, only theoretical unfortunately, I decided that it would have a very strong influence on the character and his behaviour. Of course it will give him an edge in a fight, but the important element of Malicia in Capoeira will have shaped his behaviour towards people in daily life. I think it will be wise to keep your guard up around this character and not to assume that you know his intentions.

It's fun to see a character go from statistics and a character sheet to a real, well-rounded person. I'm at the point where he pretty much writes himself after I found the element that makes him come alive for me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Challenges

It's that time of year...a ton of new challenges are announced and I'm having a hard time not to pick too many. So in addition to the Library challenge and the Classics challenge, I'm going to add only two more. At least, that's the plan.

The third challenge will be the non-fiction challenge:
”2012

I've decided to host a challenge to motivate myself and others to read more nonfiction. To make it more of a challenge, the Non-Fiction Non-Memoir Reading Challenge will exclude memoirs, which seem to be the most read type of nonfiction among the book blogs I follow. Instead, we'll focus on learning about a variety of different topics and discovering new facts. The challenge will run from January 1, 2012 through December 31, 2012.

What Counts:
- Books can be any format (bound, ebook, audio) but must be written for adults or young adults.
- Books can cover many different topics, including science, technology, religion, sociology, business, biography, politics, economics, history, food, art/design, etc.
- How-to, self-help and travel books are permitted, as long as you actual read them cover to cover, and don't just use them as a reference.
- Crossovers with other challenges are permitted.

I'm going for the Diploma level, 10 books.

1. Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder
2. Oppenheimer and the Bomb by Paul Strathern
3. The End by Ian Kershaw
4. Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore

The fourth one is the War Through the Generations challenge:



War Through the Generation’s 2012 reading challenge will be World War I. The challenge will run from January 1, 2012, through December 31, 2012.

Rules:
This year you have options when reading your fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, etc. with the WWI as the primary or secondary theme.

Books can take place before, during, or after the war, so long as the conflicts that led to the war or the war itself are important to the story. Books from other challenges count so long as they meet the above criteria.

I'm going for three books. One of those maybe All Quiet on the Western Front. It would be a re-read, but it's a brilliant book well worth a second look.

1. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Mao

I've read two Mao Zedong biographies this year. One was Mao - The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and the other was Mao Zedong by Jonathan Spence.

I liked Spence's book better because he's not so involved. Chang and her family suffered under Mao's regime and I got the feeling throughout the book that she felt the need to vilify him, taking care not to say one good word about him.

I've said before that I enjoy it when an author is passionate about his subject and I really do, but it shouldn't stand in the way of facts and objectivity. Mao certainly committed more than enough crimes and his actions can speak for themselves. There's no need for polemics. There has been criticism of the book regarding selective use of facts and evidence. I'm nowhere knowledgeable enough to judge that for myself, but it would fit with the impression I got when I read it.

The Spence biography is much shorter and much more matter of fact. It's a good first choice if you want to learn more about Mao and gives the reader the knowledge needed to better understand this part of Chinese history. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good Mao biography. The book by Chang is not a good choice if you don't have any prior knowledge - at the very least I would recommend getting your hand on some reviews and commentaries regarding the book. That's a good idea in any case when it comes to reading non-fiction both on-line and off-line), especially when it concerns a topic you're not knowledgeable about (sorry, I got librarian-ish there for a moment).

Mao - The Unknown Story is my 45th and Mao Zedong my 46th book for the Library Challenge.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Unearthly Sound

Listen to this.

Take a guess at what makes the sounds.

I came up with the sounds Saturn makes in the recordings Cassini made. But it's a bearded seal, Erignathus barbartus. That's hands down the most weird sound I have ever heard from any living thing. It's not exactly known why the seals make this sound, but it's probably a mating call or a call to claim a territory.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Man with Zither Repels Invasion

Meet Zhuge Liang, the man who fought back a superior enemy with the help of a guqin and an open gate.
I wanted to write about this guy in my Wargaming with Gandhi post, but I couldn't for the life of me remember the details or where I read about him. Cracked.com of course, where else.

It's in all probability a fictious account, but there have been real uses of this strategy. It made its way into the Thirty-Six Stratagems book, which is a worthwhile read for gamers, wargamers and roleplayers both. Here's a copy in English and French.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mirageographer

Mirages are just optical illusions, right? Not so, says Jakub Keskin, head of the mirageographers' society. That's a common misconception. In fact, mirages are byproducts of warps in spacetime and can be used for greatly accelerated travel to the place they show. The only problem is predicting the appearance of a mirage and that's what the mirageographers are trying to do. It used to be a timecomsuming task, with a lot of waiting, but the modern age with the arrival of cameras and videophones everywhere has made it a lot easier.

Jakub inherited his interest in mirages and his spot in the society from his mother Maryam, who was the first to travel the famous and elusive Herðubreið mirage, correctly predicting the exact time and place the mirage appeared. He has concentrated his research on Peru and Chile and has lately come to believe that mirages may allow not only travel in space, but also in time. Jakub has high hopes in the Atacama mirage, which he has already predicted, but not yet travelled, and he is mounting an expedition to do just that. Considering that it may be a one way trip into the distant past, he has had some difficulties finding companions, but he is determined to go. Alone, if he must.

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I came up with this after a prompt from Burning Zeppelin Experience and it's been hanging around ever since. Feel free to do something with it, if it inspires you.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wargaming with Gandhi

I showed Mr Bookscorpion the video here of Peter Cushing wargaming - and wouldn't it be awesome if we had a video of him playing a game with Christopher Lee?. I also mentioned that I came across an interview with Vin Diesel where he spoke about playing D&D with Karl Urban and Judi Dench, who I didn't think could get any more brilliant, but it seems everything's better with RPGs. And possibly Ninjas.

Aaanyway, we threw around the question who we'd want to invite to gaming night if we could. I'd totally go for Cthulhu Gaslight with Mark Gatiss and for whatever Neil Gaiman would be willing to run. I've seen Neil Gaiman a few times at readings and, aside from being an awesome writer, he also can turn just about anything into a story people get drawn into. If that doesn't qualify someone to be a great GM, then I don't know what does.
Richard Feynman would probably have presented a challenge for GMs because I'm sure he would have come up with creative and outrageous ways to solve problems.
I'm not sure I would actually want to play a game with him, but it would be interesting to see what kind of system and character Siegmund Freud would choose.
I'm not a wargamer, but I can't help but wonder about wargaming with Gandhi. Do the rules handle civil disobedience and passive resistance?

Who would you pick for a game?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Classics Challenge

The year's not over and I'm already collecting new challenges. I've already signed up for the Library Challenge and today I came across the Classics Challenge. Here's how it works:

Read seven works of Classic Literature in 2012
Only three of the seven may be re-reads

Instead of writing a review as you finish each book (of course, you can do that too), visit November's Autumn on the 4th of each month from January 2012 - December 2012.

You will find a prompt, it will be general enough that no matter which Classic you're reading or how far into it, you will be able to answer. There will be a form for everyone to link to their post. I encourage everyone to read what other participants have posted.


I haven't come up with a reading list, I think it will be spur of the moment. But I do know that next year A Tale of Two Cities and I will go into a room and only one of us will come out. I'm not a fan of Dickens, but I gave up on him before I ever read Tale of Two Cities and it sounds like I might enjoy it.

1. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
2. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
3. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
4. Antigone by Sophokles
5. Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham
6. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
7. Of Human Bondage by W.S. Maugham

Friday, November 18, 2011

Odd

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman is a children's book set right in the middle of Norse mythology. I have a special liking for that mythology, I always found their gods to be very likeable and the thought that they have to face a destiny just as grim as that of any human fascinating. It may be the darkest mythology out there (I seriously wonder if the weather had something to do with that) and I love it.

Odd is a young boy who one day, during a very long winter, meets a fox, a bear and an eagle in the woods. It quickly becomes clear that the animals are Thor, Loki and Odin who have been turned into animals by one of the Frost Giants who has taken over Asgard. It was Loki's fault. No-one is surprised. Odd offers his help and off they go on a quest to win back Asgard from the Frost Giants.
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I loved the bickering gods, who even in their animal form have the feeling of power and mystery to them. The Frost Giant is my favourite character, though, totally surprised by Odd and his carefree smile and willing to listen to him. The solution to the problem is beautiful and simple and satisfying. I also like that not everything is perfect in the end - in Norse mythology it never is - but it's good enough.

The illustrations by Brett Helquist are beautiful, as are the headers of each chapter. There's no need to know anything about the Norse gods to like this book, but if you do, it makes it even more enjoyable.

44th book for the Library Challenge

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Cthulhu: Waterworks

Dramatis personae:
Liam, longtime and astonishingly sane survivor of quite a few adventures. Liam's a professional poker player with ties to the Irish mob. He saw his two best friends die not so long ago...actually, one of them committed suicide right in front of Liam and he killed the other one by accident, in an attempt to save both their lives. Long story.
Let's just say Liam is tired, struggles to keep a grip on reality and basically just wants to be left alone. Especially since his last encounter with the supernatural was just two days ago.

Shane: a Catholic priest with ties to some strange organisation. The parish is plagued by money problems, but Shane has refused an offer by Irish mobster O'Bannion to rent out the cellar of the rectory.

Ian: stuntman and odd job man - too old for Hollywood. Is offered work sometimes by a director friend of his.

The three characters have been through one adventure together prior to this. It all takes place in Arkham in 1923.

NPCs:
Danny Baker: sergeant of the Arkham PD with a lot of experience and street smarts. He has seen quite a bit of Arkham's less pretty side and knows Liam well, but at the moment he would prefer it if he didn't see Liam for a while. Too many strange things have happened.
Seamus: Liam's best friend for the last 30 years or so. Their friendship has suffered a bit when Liam found out not too long ago that Seamus is a warlock (although one who fights evil). They still are friends and Liam trusts him, but it's no longer the blind trust he had before.


Shane's hopes for a quiet evening are squashed when he finds out that one of the nuns. Sister Susan, who work for the church has disappeared. He tries to report her missing, but the officer is very much not interested and tells him to come back when she's still missing tomorrow.

click to read the whole adventure

Liam doesn't get the chance to relax either. He gets a call from McDeath (one of the mob's most feared enforcers) about a body that has been found, McDeath wants his opinion. After all Liam's been through, he's something of the go to-guy for strange things, even though people only know half of what has really happened.
The body looks like it has been suck dry of any moisture and the two fist-sized holes in his chest can't have been good for his health either. Liam notices something like spider webs in the mouth of the corpse and for a moment it looks as though they move. He has never seen anything like this before, but agrees to keep his eyes open. McDeath also tells him that there's a new drug on the streets, something that targets people who were before known to be teetotallers and even children.

Ian gets a job offer by his friend and an invitation for breakfast, along with the lead actor of the planned movie. Both movie and breakfast are cancelled when the actor collapses and dies after two spiders come out of his mouth.Ian manages to squash one of the spiders under his boot and quickly has to get rid of the boot when the spider's blood starts to eat through the leather. Rattled by the experience, he calls Shane.

Shane has just been told by his housekeeper that she accepted O'Bannion's offer after all to finally get the money she needs to keep the church and rectory in shape, not to mention to buy food. He's furious, but not furious enough to refuse the dinner she made. He has too much on his hands in any case because he gets a call by Sergeant Danny Baker, who tells him that Sister Susan has been found dead. Shane goes to identify the body, which looks almost exactly like the one Liam has seen. Danny looks exhausted and seems to have too many things on his mind. He can tell Shane that Sister Susan was fished out of the Miskatonic by a Chinese fisherman and that she was probably abducted somewhere at the docks, where she went to buy fish.

Liam takes a stroll and he does notice quite a few people who seem drunk or drugged. He notices one of them drinking from a bottle and when the man sit down in a doorway in a drunken stupor, it's fairly easy to steal the bottle. The liquid is clear and smells of nothing much. Liam calls in a favour with a private investigator he knows to get the stuff analysed, but it will take some time. In the meantime, there's another body to see, this one with a rambling letter talking about dreams and visions and mentioning the name Yao Tien.

Shane and Ian decide to call Liam to see if he has heard anything and he agrees to meet them at the rectory. They exchange information and come to the conclusion that it would be very easy to mix the drug into the Arkham's water - especially since there have been problems with the water supply and the waterworks are doing repairs at the moment. They decide to go to Danny Baker with their suspicion. Liam says that it might be better if he didn't get involved with Danny just now and waits outside with Ian.

Shane talks to Danny Baker and tells him about Yao Tien - a name Danny knows and he asks why Shane knows it. Before Shane has to lie, Liam and Ian burst into the room. While Danny is not overjoyed to see him, he at least agrees to share what he knows with them and tells them that Yao Tien is probably the one who manufactures the new drug, but the liquid Liam found is probably something different. When he mentions the Dreamlands, Liam goes very quiet, staring Danny down until he sends the others out of the room. Danny has seen a bit too much over the last few months and while he blames Liam for some of it, at least he can talk to him freely.

Danny knows that there are plans to poison the water supply of Arkham, although he cannot prove it. He would be willing to go with them to the waterworks, along with some other policemen he trusts, but he warns Liam that this may well end with the destruction of the waterworks, which would mean a catastrophe for Arkham (the water of the Miskatonic is not fit to be drunk). After some deliberation with Shane and Ian they decide to go through with their plan next night.

Liam goes to visit Seamus to ask him about the Dreamlands and Seamus tells him that he can bring them into the Dreamlands where they could fight their enemies without risking Arkham. Their lives would be very much at risk, though. Liam feels that he hasn't much to loose in any case and wants to go. Shane and Ian are not so convinced when he talks to them and ask to meet Seamus.

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Liam has been my character for a very long time...well, at least for Call of Cthulhu. I've been playing him for almost two years now, over the course of a lot of adventures. He was lucky enough to retain a healthy chunk of his sanity, as far as game mechanics are concerned. But at this moment, he's just mentally exhausted from all the things he has seen. He used to lead a fairly comfortable and secure life, despite or maybe because of his association with the Irish mob. Over the course of the last eight months or so this changed: he discovered that there are very unpleasant things lurking just around the next corner and he feels that he cannot escape. And while he still trusts Seamus, the discovery that his best friend has lead a double life for who knows how long has not helped with restoring his faith in the world.

I have a distinct feeling that Liam will not survive this adventure or if he does, he will be insane. That's actually pretty awesome - I never thought he would last as long as he did and it is such a lot of fun to play his slow slide into madness and chaos. I will probably retire him even if he does survive and stays sane, but I would prefer him to die or at least go mad.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cthulhu Gaslight: Breaking and Entering

Dramatis personae:
Daffyd (Dai) Iffans, retired soldier of the British Indian Army (Rifle Brigade), now part-time writer for a Socialist newspaper, with an interest in the East End
Catherine (Cat) Kincaid, journalist and daughter of a well-known scientist

The place: London
The time: April 1890

Cat receives a letter from Edmond Kruger, a good friend who has died surprisingly. In the letter, Edmond tells her and Dai about a temple he has discovered beneath London and asks them to help Rachel, his sister, in further exploring and excavating that temple.
Dai and Cat have met the sister before and neither of them had a great liking for her, but since it was the last wish of their friend, they are willing to meet with her at least. They get a rather frosty reception, but didn't expect anything less. Rachel is willing to accept their help and will provide them with money, but she also asks that they report any developments to an associate of hers, William McKennan - who seems to be something of a thug, but an intelligent one. The worst kind.
If things go as planned, he will go along with Cat and Dai once they have found the temple. Rachel also gives them a second letter her brother wrote which she cannot read since it's written in code. Cat and Dai both have the cypher for the code, but somehow neglect to mention this to Rachel.

click here to read the whole adventure

They translate the letter and find a mention of a safe deposit box at the Bank of England, instructions on how to find the temple, along with a warning to keep an eye on McKennan - not that they would have needed that. The temple is located right under Westminster Abbey, not the best place for an excavation.

Unfortunately, there's no key to the safe deposit box and so they decide to ask Rachel about it...breaking into Westminster Abbey will be enough illegal activity and as Dai puts it: I draw the line at the Bank of England. Rachel is visibly surprised when Dai asks about the key and he realises he should have kept it to himself, at the latest when he hears her order McKennan to go and look for the key.

Dai manages to turn up at Edmond's house before McKennan and is allowed to look for the key by Edmond's housekeeper. There's clearly no love lost between her and McKennan and she even keeps McKennan occupied when he arrives, allowing Dai to pocket the key and leave via the back stairs.

At the bank, they find yet another letter and a pendant showing a pentagram with flames and a single eye, which they have encountered during their last adventure. The letter tells them what they had already suspected: Rachel is not to have access to the temple and she forced Edmond to write the first letter. Edmond also writes that the temple can be used as a portal and is much too dangerous to be left there. He asks them to destroy it, something he had planned to do himself and to which purpose they will find dynamite at his house.

Dai and Cat meet after dark and manage to slip into Westminster Abbey during Evensong. They find a handy corner to hide in, which is made easier by the size of the church that is also not well lit. Dai thinks he heard something and he suspects that they are not alone in waiting for everyone to leave, but he cannot spot anyone. After the church is empty, they wait for about fifteen minutes more, Dai patiently, Cat less so. When nothing has moved by then, they make their way to the altar with as little light and noise as possible and they do find a loose flagstone that reveals an underground passage. The passage seems to be in use and it's actually lit by candles.

Dai still thinks they are being followed and they wait again. Whoever follows them has no choice but to use the entrance through the flagstone as well and it's a good place for an ambush. Which is exactly what this turns into when after ten minutes or so, McKennan climbs down through the opening, armed with a revolver. Dai has no intentions of waiting for him to get into a position where he can use the gun, especially not with Cat as a target and he shoots McKennan, killing him pretty much instantly.

The sight of all that blood sends Cat into a slight shock, but they continue on their way once Dai has picked up McKennan's revolver. They know that Rachel is somewhere up there, she was behind McKennan when he got shot, but they want to reach the temple as soon as possible now. The instructions Edmond left are very clear and it's not hard to find the otherwise well-hidden place where a sort of pit cage descends. At that time, they both have enough of their hearing back to notice footsteps behind them. They don't relish the thought of climbing into the pit cage and leaving the controls for their pursuer to play with, so they once again hide and wait in the dark.

They cannot see who is coming after them and Dai hesitates, he doesn't want to shoot someone who wandered down here by accident (the way is not hard to find since they didn't take the time to hide their tracks). Cat attacks the person, trying to knock the lantern out of her hands, but fails and almost gets shot. That's the cue for Dai to fire and he kills Cat's attacker with a shot to the head. In the light of his own lantern, he finds that it's indeed Rachel, but he doesn't take much time to dwell on that because Cat is lying motionless on the floor. She's fine when he picks her up, just in shock, but it's still a frightening moment.

While Cat takes a moment to get a grip on herself, they both notice that Rachel's blood is turning black and seems to be moving. They have no idea what is happening, but they are not staying to find out and continue down to the temple. It's impressively big, looking almost like a Maya temple, with some details not found in any Meso-American temple, like the big crystals along every flight of stairs.

They are still busy with preparing the dynamite when a huge black amorphous mass oozes into view and makes a straight line for the crystals. A bullet does nothing to stop the monster, but at least it doesn't take an interest in Cat or Dai, who hurry to light the fuses and then try to get away as quickly and as far as possible. They make it to the pit cage and up to the tunnel before the explosion and get out into Westminster Abbey despite the shaking, crumbling ground. Cat loses her composure when a spectre rises out of the tunnel, like a monstrous jellyfish with big yellow eyes, and she runs out into the street. Dai follows her, hoping like hell that they don't run into a Bobby and eventually she calms down. They return to Dai's flat, Cat doesn't want to be alone now and Dai is not up to explaining to her housemaid why he wishes to stay the night.

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To anticipate any questions about the effectiveness of Dai's shots: I rolled an insane amount of damage both times and a critical success when shooting Rachel. Guns are very, very deadly in Cthulhu.
We took a bit more artistic license with the dynamite, at least to my knowledge. It really is fairly easy to handle, but destroying a big building with it would require a lot more planning that we did. Not to mention the effects on Westminster Abbey. But that's a case of not letting facts get in the way of the fun and I'm not complaining. Although it would have been cool to wreck Westminster Abbey.

This adventure brought out the more ruthless side of Dai's character and I'm glad it did. It's something he has never really dared to talk about with anyone, but he does want to. He invited Cat to ask him about his time in India a while ago and we'll get to that conversation the next time we play. The GM is looking forward to leaning back with a drink and just watching the show.

Something that amuses me, although I could have foreseen it: Dai enjoys Cat's company and he likes her adventurous nature, but he's also terrified that something will happen to her. At times, he is tempted to tell her to stay behind, to leave things to him, but he knows fully well that the best reaction he could hope for would be a "don't be ridiculous". This might make for some interesting roleplay later on.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Artworks I'd Steal: Nightmare

477px-Johann_Heinrich_F%C3%BCssli_053
I saw Gothic ages ago and there's a scene that re-creates the painting. I think that the actual painting is also displayed in the house were the film is set. It's about as Gothic as you can get, it has everything the genre calls for: horror, mystery, fear of the unknown (or maybe just your subconscious) and lots and lots of sexual tension.

The nightmare is not the horse and it's not called nightmare because of any connection with female horses. The Mare is a goblin-like creature that will sit on people's chest while they sleep, which causes bad dreams. But the horse is also a nod to folklore, there were tales of people who were visited by horselike spirits. It may be just the Mare's horse, though.

I wonder about the caraffe on the nightstand. In the first version of the painting there's a jar and a small bottle. So what's in there, exactly? It could be just water, but I'm thinking along the lines of laudanum, which was incredibly popular at the time and often used as a sleeping aid.

The reason why I like this painting so much is that I suffer from sleep paralysis, which probably inspired the folktales of Mares, Incubi and Succubi (not to mention alien abduction). For a very long time, I did not know what was going on, until I read about it in Carl Sagan's brilliant book The Demon Haunted World. So I can relate to all the people who had to come up with some explanation why they woke up in the middle of the night, totally paralysed and maybe hearing voices or seeing creepy stuff in the corner of their eye.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Asking for it.

I wrote about the player who blackmailed the GM into accepting his character a while ago. At our latest session, things escalated a wee bit more.
Blackmail player, let's call him Tom, has a reputation in our group for recklessness and for wanting everything to go his way. He's also bad at accepting the consequences of his actions. Oh, and he manages to fall asleep every single time we play.

So we completed our run with a drug dealer tied to the flatbed of one player's pickup - we'll call this player Andrew. We were told to discourage the dealer from continuing to sell his drugs, by any means necessary. So Tom does a great job of intimidating the dealer, but we all see a messy end coming. Andrew warns Tom three times that we a. shouldn't do this in front of our employer's club and b. that he doesn't want anyone getting killed in his truck.

Despite that, Tom's character shoot the dealer right there. So Andrew's character (whom we all know has a violent streak) pulls a gun and starts shooting at Tom's character, killing him. Aaand this was the moment when Tom again picked up his things and left, totally outraged that Andrew had dared to attack his character.

Maybe shooting Tom's character was a bit extreme, but really - what did he assume would happen? Nothing? A slap on the wrist? He went out of his way to ignore what he had been told and he ignored the rest of the group - did so for pretty much the whole evening. It was like having a team of runners plus this guy who sometimes turns up and not in a good-natured "Dude, don't forget about Mark"-way. So on second thought, I can totally get behind shooting the character.

There are a few things that get on my nerve when roleplaying. But nothing is so annoying as people who want everything to go their own way, who confuse roleplaying with the latest computer game and who put their own fun before that of the whole group.
I actually do like Tom, he's a nice guy and he can be a brilliant GM and player if he wants to. But I can't say I'm unhappy that we will be playing Shadowrun without him.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Outland

Outland remains one of my favourite science fiction movies, I get a kick out of it every time I watch it. I'm not a big friend of utopian science fiction and Outland is about as dystopian as you can get without being downright post-apocalyptic.

Sean Connery is of course awesome as Marshall O'Niel, but Frances Sternhagen steals every scene they have together as the mining colony's doctor (I'm unpleasant, I'm not stupid!). I don't know, if I were O'Niel, I'd think twice about returning to that whiney wife of his.

Outland also has really gorgeous models. You can take a closer look here - the details are amazing. This photo gives an idea how big the models actually were.

You can see them in the movie here:

I love that they animated Jupiter's atmosphere, that's a neat little detail.

If you plan on running a scifi RPG set in a not so glorious future, then Outland should definitely be on your movie list. The crowded living quarters of the miners and the loud, shabby bar hit just the right tone. Space is not the place for privacy or comfort.

Oh, and despite the fact that it doesn't happen when you step out into a vacuum, I dig the exploding people.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

History of Private Life

I was looking forward to Bill Bryson's new book "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" and I was not disappointed. I love this collection of facts about everyday items we use and rarely think about.

The book takes the form of a walk through an old house in the English countryside, with each room giving a chapter its theme. Some of the things Bryson talks about are a bit random, but for me that just adds to the charm. I'm this ninja of random knowledge, my "did you know"s are known and feared and this book added considerably to my arsenal.

Seriously, I learned a lot about likely and unlikely things, I came away from the book with a list of further books to read and I laughed out loud quite a few times. If you don't mind taking a walk through a house with a companion to goes off on a tangent once in a while, then go and read this book.

43. book for the Library Challenge

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

some other blogs

Here are some blogs I found that I've been meaning to link to for ages.

Shorpy gives us a vintage photo every day, usually from 1900-1920. It's a great resource and fascinating.

Mirrorshards is really short fiction, a couple of stories every week. Dark, funny and surprising.

Sheila O'Malley writes about books and movies and lately about Elvis Presley. She knows how to aim straight for the heart with her posts. When she writes about an actor, you will want to see a movie with him or her right now. When she writes about Elvis, you may fall in love (so you've been warned).

The Journal I Wish I Kept - just what it says on the cover. Eva has had an eventful life to say the least and her posts are hilarious and sad and touching. I started with Liberace's Love Child and that last photo never fails to make me giggle.

Cold Antler Farm - the story of a young woman who buys a farm and chronicles her adventures with sheep, chickens, horses and farm life in general. I find this deeply satisfying to read because it's so clear that Jenna loves her life. I guess I'm living vicariously here - I'd love living on a farm, but I don't think I'd enjoy all that hard, hard work enough. Or maybe I would. I'm too chicken to just go and buy one to find out, as Jenna did.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Georg Elser

There were many attempts on Hitler's life, but Georg Elser stands out. He acted alone and he acted very early in 1939, when for example the more famous members of the 20 July plot were still strongly supporting Hitler (in spite of their misgivings and doubts).

For a very long time, Elser was ignored by historians or it was assumed that he had been a pawn of the Nazis. It used to be common knowledge that he was a socially incompetent loner, whom people thought weird long before the assassination. This started to change with Hellmut G. Haasis biography "Den Hitler jag ich in die Luft" (I'm going to blow up Hitler) in 1999.

The author is passionate about his subject and it shines through in the book. This is frowned upon in non-fiction, but I enjoy it, as long as passion doesn't replace facts. Haasis gathered a lot of facts that were ignored for a long time and we're introduced to a very different person: not very chatty, but still sociable and well-liked. The book follows Elser as he decides to act upon his opinion that Hitler is a danger for Germany and comes up with a diligent plan to assassinate him. If you want to learn about Elser, there is no way around this book (go for the revised 2011 edition).

Here's a question: did he have the right to do what he did? Is tyrannicide allowed, is it ethical? Elser also knew that his bomb would kill and injure many more people than just Hitler, but he also knew that all or at least the vast majority would be dyed in the wool-Nazis. is that a tolerable price for getting rid of a tyrant?

My first impulse would be to answer that question hell, yes. Even though it's not possible to say what would have happened, the Nazi party would have lost many of its leaders in addition to Hitler if the bomb had gone off a little earlier and I think it would have collapsed. It was easy to see in 1939 that Germany was steering into a catastrophe and that the regime was about as far from lawful as you can get.

So, how many innocent lives are an acceptable price? There were not only Nazis at the Bürgerbräukeller, but also the people who just worked there (who may or may have not supported the party). Is it worth sacrificing their lives as well? And how many are too many - we can weigh their lives against the millions killed during the war and the Holocaust. But that hadn't happened yet, although it was clear that a war was very likely (and it did start a short while before the assassination) and that the regime was a murderous one.

It is my opinion that Elser did the right thing. He deserves a lot more recognition that he is getting in Germany.

There's a movie about him, Seven Minutes, that I can recommend. It's a good idea to read up on the actual facts, though, since some are changed in the movie. Still, it's worth watching.

42. book for the Library Challenge

Monday, October 31, 2011

Player Blackmail

So we have started another adventure in our Shadowrun campaign. The GM asked us all to send him the details of our characters and we all did (or let him make characters for us). Which led me to believe that we could start playing without problems.

Muahaha. Naive little me. We could not, because one player decided that he didn't feel like playing the character he had chosen after all and he wanted another character and it should be an adept (someone who used magic). The GM balked at this because we already had one magic using character and he didn't want any more, which he had already said beforehand.

After a bit back and forth the player packed up his things and threatened to leave because he felt that it was unfair that he wasn't allowed to play his character. Another player offered to switch to a non-magic using character and so an agreement was reached, but to be honest, I would have let the player walk out. There is a reason why we all had to choose our character beforehand and I don't see why blackmailing the GM, not to put too fine a point on it, should be rewarded.

Or is that just me overreacting?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

City of Stones

German history is a big hobby of mine, especially the years 1914-1945. So when I saw Berlin - City of Stone by Jason Lutes at the library, I was immediately interested: a comic about Berlin during the Weimarer Republik, very tumultuous years all over Germany and in Berlin in particular.
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The story follows Marthe Müller, an art student who moves to Berlin, and Kurt Severing, a journalist writing for the Weltbühne. We also get to know a worker family, a Jewish family and in the second book a group of African-American jazz musicians. Berlin was an exciting city at the time, where you could see and experience things not found anywhere else in Germany. It was also a city of shocking poverty and misery. City of Stones captures both.

We also get to meet quite a few historical characters, it was fun to see who I recognised. Kurt Tucholsky, Carl von Ossietzky and Joachim Ringelnatz (see below) for example.
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The Weimarer Republik was never stable and violent fights in the streets were common. One of the worst of such fights, the massacre on 1 May 1929 (Blutmai, Bloody May), is shown at the end of the book and I got a kick out of seeing a DZVR 21, an armoured vehicle used by the police at the time. I saw one at the Panzermuseum and I thought at the time that it must have been a terrifying sight when one of those appeared, especially at a time where cars where not all that ubiquitous and common.
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading both City of Stones and City of Smokes and I'm looking forward to the third and final book of the series. For anyone with an interest in that time or someone who wishes to learn about it, I absolutely recommend those books.

41st book for the Library Challenge

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Queen and Country

Shortly after I began watching The Sandbaggers, I picked up a comic at the library called Queen and Country by Greg Rucka. It looked interesting, so I took it home and started having deja vu after reading the first few pages. Turns out Queen and Country is heavily influenced by The Sandbaggers - talk about synchronicity.
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click photo to see bigger version
The comic follows Tara Chace in her work for the SIS. There's quite a lot of action, but also a lot of scheming and politics and both are equally interesting.
The artwork is in b/w, nothing flashy, but incredibly effective for the type of story it tells. The style is equally simple - simple as in nothing superfluous, but all that's necessary and the characters are instantly recognisable and alive, right down to their expressive body language.
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I haven't read the complete series, but I definitely plan to (Christmas is coming up, after all). I have this thing for stories that don't treat their characters well. Although I do complain just like everyone else when a character (including my own RPG characters) dies or gets really taken to the cleaners, I enjoy it at the same time because it's interesting. Queen and Country is definitely capable of this, just like The Sandbaggers and I love them both for it.

Queen and Country is my 40th book for the Library Challenge

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ernst

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Ernst isn't tame at all, so he panics and flutters when I reach for him. Sshh, I tell him, it's going to be okay. Except it's not.

Ernst has been with me for 13 years, I bought him and and a friend for him soon after I moved to Hamburg. I always had budgies as a child and I missed the chatter. His partner died, I got him a new one - I've had a lot of budgies over the years, but Ernst was always there. He found a partner, a female called Susi, and lived happily with her for years. Susi died earlier this year and Ernst grew more quiet, he didn't try to bond with the new females I brought home from the shelter.

He'd had troubles with his heart for a long time. It couldn't be treated and the vet told me that he probably wouldn't last all that long. That was five years ago and I kept a close eye on him, but he was doing okay. A bit short of breath after flying, but that was to be expected. Last week Ernst couldn't fly any more, he'd drop to the floor and couldn't get airborne again. I knew then it was time.

I don't take the others, it's cold outside and I don't want to stress them out as well. I regret that when Ernst starts calling once we are on our way, loud contact calls. I wish I had brought at least one of the others along. Too late now.
The vet agrees with me that there is nothing more to be done. Ernst screams when he gets the first injection, but I know he's not in pain, it's just the usual protest scream when someone holds him. He falls asleep quickly and after the second injection, it's only seconds until his heart stops. I astonish myself by not crying and I talk a bit with the vet about budgies - my vet's amazing and I know my pets and me are in good hands.

At home, I show Ernst's body to the other budgies. They won't call for him now, but they would if I just took him and never brought him back. And then finally I sit down and cry for Ernst, who was my companion for much of my adult life.
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Click Click


This is a serious trip down memory lane for me. One of the first songs I ever heard at a Goth club. I still love it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

All Hallows Read



I love this, both the video and the whole idea. Also: thank you, Neil Gaiman, for encouraging people to use their local library. We appreciate the support.
I think I'll give away some Edward Gorey for this year's All Hallow's Read.
Why Gorey? Because.
Here's a very nice little edition of this brilliant, macabre and hilarious book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stargazing

The October Draconids meteor shower will be at its maximum this weekend, so take a look at the sky.
Unfortunately, for those of you in North America, the peak will be during daytime, but in Europe, it will be between 16h-22h Universal Time on Saturday night and several meteors per minute are possible (forecasts differ, though). Grab a deck chair or a blanket, some warm clothes and get as far away from lights as possible. Outside the city would be best, although I've been watching meteors in a public park for years now, with trees shielding me from the streetlights.
Here's a maps that will help with spotting the meteors.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Sandbaggers

I came across The Sandbaggers via a list of people who vanished in airplanes, of all things. The casual reference was enough to intrigue me and I wasn't disappointed - the series is brilliant.



If you prefer your spies to be Bond-ish, then this may not be for you. If you like John le Carré and possibly Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories, then by all means check it out. There is very little action in the sense of guns and explosions, but it's thrilling nonetheless. You will need to pay close attention, the characters move in a complex net of favours, bureaucracy and unspoken rules and a lot of things are only hinted at. A crash course in all the abbreviations used isn't a bad idea either.

Roy Marsden is excellent as spymaster Neil Burnside. Who is not all that likeable, but definitely fascinating and a lot more fun to watch than any of the no flaws-characters so liked by script writers today.

Oh, and don't get too attached to characters. I'm just saying.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Germany From Below

Alexander Graf Stenbock-Fermor travelled through Germany in 1930 and visited worker families all over the country. The resulting book is hard to read at times because of the unbelievable misery it describes.
Unemployment was high and those that had work were paid only a pittance that was just enough to starve slowly. Ten, fifteen people living in one room and sleeping in two or three beds was not an exception, but the norm. The rooms were damp, cold, infested with mould and vermin and disease like tuberculosis or syphilis were rampant.
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At the time Germany was well-known as a producer of high quality toys and dolls, but there was rising competition from the US and the UK. Families who had earned their living making toys for generations now were fighting for their survival. Child labour was illegal at the time, but without the children helping (sometimes as young as four to sex years old) the families would starve. Retirement was not an option. The woman in the picture was years old and worked 12 hours a day (every day).
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I learned about the strikes and riot at the Leunawerke (a huge industrial complex producing ammonia) in 1921, when workers first put down their work and then barricaded themselves at the Leunawerke. The strike was brutally beaten down by the police, murdering 46 workers in the process. The workers were executed pretty much at random, without any kind of trial.

It does shine through at times that the author was well on his way to becoming an active communist, but he doesn't force his political views on the reader. The scenes he describes are matter of fact and heartbreaking at the same time, enough for anyone to draw his own conclusions. It's a book that deserves to be read even now.

My 39th book for the Library challenge

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Degra

I'm re-watching the third season of Enterprise at the moment and I'm intrigued yet again by Degra, the man responsible for building a weapon that is meant to destroy Earth and for a prototype that already killed 7 million humans.

Screams villain, doesn't it? But things are not so easy...the Xindi, Degra's species, act in what they believe is self-defence since they have proof that the Humans will destroy the Xindi in the future. What would we do in that case? It would be nice to believe that we would try diplomacy, but somehow I'm fairly sure that building a weapon for a pre-emptive strike would be just our reaction.

But that big moral question aside, what I really find interesting about Degra is how very likeable I find him. The first time we really get to see a lot of him, it's very clear that while he believes that the weapon had to be built, he still regrets it. And once Captain Archer has managed to at least make him doubt the proof for the attack on the Xindi, he risks everything to prevent the launch of the final weapon.

So I ask myself, how would I feel if I met him, got to know him, as part of the crew of Enterprise? Would I want him punished for what he did or would I be able to forgive him, knowing that I might have acted just the same? And can the responsibility for so many dead be forgiven? Is it enough to to sincerely regret it and to try to make amends? Does it make a difference that he has acted in good faith, convinced that there was no other way?

I think it does make a difference, but as for the other questions, I don't know. But I like being made to ask myself these questions. For me Degra is the most interesting (guest) character the writers created during all four seasons of Enterprise - and they had quite a few very cool characters (coughShrancough).

Monday, September 26, 2011

In the Country of Men

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar tells the story of 9 year old Suleiman who lives in Tripoli in 1979. His father is part of a revolutionary movement and we watch things unfold and go bad through Suleiman's eyes.

I picked this book up because the title caught my eye and because I've been following the Libyan civil war since day one. I also would like to read African authors and this seemed like a good choice to start.

Due to the perspective of the child, many things are only hinted at, but I think that this is one of the strength of this novel. Children have a unique view and so many things are just weird to them, but when remembered later, they gain significance.
It's a study of how a regime like Gaddafi's influences the lives of people, how it can corrupt and damage their relationships. The suspicion that someone may be a dissident, even if it's only in thought, is enough to destroy all trust and friendship.
The language is fascinating. My edition has an interview with the author and he says that he believes his "English has an Arab hum to it". I would agree, it makes itself felt through the English words. He also has a gift for describing scenes so vividly that you can feel the hot sun on your skin, taste the delicious mulberry.

My 38th book for the Library challenge

Friday, September 23, 2011

A History of Honour

I only picked this book up because of the cover. I love Dangerous Liasons and it's actually a good choice for this book because it's a movie very much about honour.
If you had asked me (and not given me time to think about it) I would have said that honour is a slightly outdated concept, at least in Western culture. The more I read, the more I found out just how wrong I would have been.
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The author takes us through the ages and shows how the concept of honour changed and adapted, depending on society and often shaping it. The main focus is on Germany, but not only because it is a German book. Duels were very common in Germany and the tradition lasted much longer than in neighbouring countries, although duelling was (and is) illegal in Germany. Part of what kept it alive was the Mensur - it's still practised today, although not as a method of duelling for honour...at least officially.

The part of the book examining honour during the Third Reich and post war Germany was extremely interesting. The Nazis used honour as a propaganda instrument and connected it with the state, the politicians of the GDR tried the same thing. There was an enormous amount of medals and honour people could earn in the GDR, so many that it was no longer an honour to receive them. West Germany gave state honours much more sparingly, trying to avoid similarities with the Third Reich. But the concept of honouring a person for their achievements as a way of motivating them had been recognised and is still widely in use today - it may motivate better than financial rewards even.

I was a bit amused when I thought about my roleplaying characters and if and how they are motivated by honour. Some of them absolutely are - but the vast majority would gladly bow out of a duel or not even see the point. Loyalty is much more important to all of them...but that's a kind of honour as well, isn't it?

My 37th book for the Library Challenge

Begirlich in dem Hertzen min



Helium Vola - a project of the very talented Ernst Horn. The lyrics are Middle High German, from an unknown author. Here's a translation both into modern German and English.,

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cthulhu: Stranger in a Strange Land

Dramatis personae:
The Right Honourable The Lord Sebastian Macaulay, gentleman of leisure and ornithologist/entomologist
Frederick Ironmonger, publisher and hobby archaeologist

The time: February 4 1890
The place: London


Mr Ironmonger and Lord Macaulay have decided to spend the evening at the Savile Club, where they meet a friend of their, Robert Padburg, who just returned from an archaeological dig in Egypt. He brought back a small statue he wants to show them, but first they retire to a private room to avoid the attention of Edward Fallon, a most unpleasant man and sworn enemy of both Ironmonger and Macaulay.

click here to read the whole adventure

The statue is made from black basalt, in the likeness of an elephant-headed human, about a hand tall and with mysterious signs engraved into the base. Some of the inscriptions reads like Latin, but more like Latin spoken by someone who only wants to imitate the sound of the language.
It was found near a sarcophagus and judged to be 3000 years old, although it is unknown to whom the sarcophagus belonged. There are rumours of a lost underground city in the area and Padburg plans to mount an expedition, inviting Ironmonger and Macaulay.

Before the explorers to be can make any further plans, Fallon burst into the room, shoving the butler Jacob aside most rudely in the process, and grabs the statue. He's quite disappointed that he has wasted his grand entrance on such rubbish, especially as the statue refuses to do something interesting, like opening a secret treasure vault when he tries to twist its base.

Fallon leaves and the discussion is resumed, but the statue does do something interesting after all: it starts to glow and there is a noticeable drop in temperature in the room. Suddenly shouts are heard from the other guests of the club. When Ironmonger and Macaulay go back into the other room, they find that there are stone walls outside the windows. The front door no longer leads to a busy London street, but to a corridor made from roughly hewn stones. Some further investigation shows that there no longer is a cellar nor any of the upper storeys of the house.

The guests decide to investigate and leave the club. They split up fairly soon into a group led by Fallon and another one led by Macaulay, taking different tunnels leading away from a large cave. There's a noticeable smell of copper in the air and faint tracks of decidedly non-human feet on the floor, along with decidedly human finger bones. In a side-tunnel Macaulay finds a sort of key he pockets and in another big cave the groups comes across a pit filled with blood that starts to boil and move when they get close. They run and things are not helped by the screams of the other group that can be heard echoing through the tunnels.

They decide to return to the club only to find it crushed by boulders. Fallon has had the same idea - he's the last one left of the group and babbles about a monster covered in mouths, but without eyes. Suddenly, a clock strikes six - a grandfather clock has appeared on the far side of the cavern. A dark, viscous liquid starts to run out of the clock, forming tentacles and the group flees into one of the tunnels they haven't yet explored. Fallon stays behind.

The tunnel is a dead end and something is right behind the group. A frantic search reveals a keyhole that fits the key found earlier, but instead of a way to escape it reveals only a small room with a pentagram drawn on the floor. With the omnious sounds coming too close for comfort, Macaulay steps into the pentagram and vanishes in a flash of light. That sight is finally too much for Jacob who runs and encounters whatever is following the group. Padburg and Ironmonger only hear his final scream as they step into the pentagram as well.

All three find themselves in a room shaped like a cross, with several exits and a sort of altar in the middle. There's also a book on a lectern and when Padburg checks the statue, he sees that it has moved and spread its arms. Ironmonger tries to read the book and while he cannot read much of the text, he can read enough to find out that they are in the Dreamlands and that they have to wake the Snake Priest to return again. The statue is supposed to help with this, but it is not explained how.

Macaulay takes a closer look at the altar and manages to open a secret compartment that contains an amulet in the form of two snakes biting their tails. When he takes it out, it leaves a hole in the altar that looks like the statue would fit. They decide to try it since it's better than running aimlessly through the labyrinth and the statue moves again, pointing at the northern exit.

Before they can take it, Mr Ryan, another member of the club who went with Fallon, stumbles into the room and is skewered from behind by a creature that is only dimly visible, except for the scorpion's sting covered in blood. With Ryan clearly beyond help, the group runs through the exit and come into a huge white-tiled room filled with hospital beds and decaying corpses suspended with chains from the ceiling. With the creature directly behind them, they don't have time to think about this (an extremely mixed blessing) and are just quick enough to escape.

Another tunnel leads them into a vault and for some reason the creature doesn't follow them in - but leaving the vault will be impossible since there is a similar creature at every exit. The walls are decorated with reliefs showing snakes and a pillar carved into the form of a snake stands in the middle of the room. The amulet fits neatly into a slot on the pillar and a sarcophagus is raised from underground.

From the sarcophagus climbs the Snake Priest who is enraged not only because he was woken by a bunch of humans, but also because they brought the statue into the Dreamlands. He demands that the group delivers to him either the one who took the statue from its place or the one who is responsible for opening the way into the Dreamlands. Ironmonger and Macaulay choose Fallon and the Snake Priest promises them safe passage for one hour. Padburg has collapsed at the sight of the Snake Priest and stays behind as a hostage.

The statue acts as a sort of guide through the labyrinth and they quickly find themselves in the first cave. Fallon is still alive, but no longer sane. He threatens Macaulay with a revolver, but before the situation can get completely out of hand, Ironmonger manages to convince him that they know a way out of the labyrinth. Fallon comes with them, but they have to knock him unconscious when he insists that he has to take a bath in the pit of blood.

They arrive in the nick of time - the Snake Priest is just about to devour Padburg and doesn't seem all that pleased to see them. He does keep his words - after promising to bring the statue back where it was found, Ironmonger and Macaulay pass out and wake in their club, along with Padburg. Most of the other members have returned as well, except Jacob and Ryan.



I've been to the Dreamlands a few times in earlier Cthulhu adventures and it rarely was more than a hack and slay dungeon crawl - which is not the type of roleplay I like and not really the purpose of Cthulhu. This adventure had just the right mix of monsters, puzzles and suspense to make it a lot of fun and terrifying at times. Grandfather clocks always have this sinister feeling to me and I decided that Lord Macaulay will definitely remove any grandfather clocks from his house, along with any other clock that chimes the hour.

The whole mood of the story, but especially the white-tiled room reminded me of Michael Ende's book The Mirror in the Mirror - if you haven't read it, you really should. It's a collection of surreal short stories, each accompanied and inspired by a drawing of Ende's father Edgar Ende.

This was the first adventure with the characters and it was well-suited to the purpose of getting acquainted with the way the character will react and how they relate to each other. I don't know if the next adventure will be a longer campaign, but I always like adventures that are done after one evening when I'm playing a new character.