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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

Speak Out With Your Geek Out: Books...with pictures

Today is the last day of Speak out with Your Geek Out and I really wondered about what to write. Not because I have no geeky interests left, but because there are way too many of them. Doctor Who, Star Trek (or science fiction series in general), toys, history... But I didn't write about books. I'm an avid reader and I'm a librarian, so books play a huge role in my life. That is one huge topic, so I choose one section of it that I like in particular. Books with pictures.

As in comic/graphic novels and as in picture books. I'm not the typical comic book geek (if there such a thing?) - I didn't read all that many comics as a kid and I never really got into superheroes or manga as a whole. But I love, love love comics.
I can totally geek out over the gorgeous drawing in Blacksad or the beautiful simplicity of a Peanuts strip. There's this scene in Astonishing X-Men when Wolverine comes out of a rather childlike state that I fell in love with - it's just two panels, but it's masterfully done. It's art, pure and simple.

When the Wind Blows makes my cry every single time I read it. I love the sneaky story of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Maus can be hard to read, but it's so worth it. Calvin and Hobbes take me back to my own childhood. There's a Peanuts strip for every occasion. Asterix taught me history (and Latin and how to read Gothic print). I could go on here, but let's just say that I'm a geek for comics and now go and read some. Take a look at French comics, there are a lot of brilliant ones.

Picture books can be works of art as well. Shaun Tan will take you on a beautiful visual voyage in his books. And so will Sven Nordqvist, especially with his Pettson and Findus series about a grumpy old Swedish farmer and his cat. Take your time with the drawings or you'll miss a lot of what is going on there. If you would ask me to recommend one single picture book, it would be Diary of a Wombat - it's hilarious and the illustrations are simple, but spot-on.

The best picture books can be read by adults and children and both will get something out of it - not necessarily the same thing, though. So go ahead, pick some up the next time you're at the library.
And while you're at it, check out the books by Scott McCloud Understanding Comics and Making Comics. Even if you don't plan to draw a comic, they are worth reading and you'll learn a ton of new things, about communication and how we look at things.


Here's to hoping that Speak Out With Your Geek Out will be back next year as planned. I loved every minute of it!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Speak Out With Your Geek Out: Heavy Machinery

This is an obsession my mom started: submarines. My mom loves Das Boot and we watched it just about every time it was on TV. I don't know when I first saw it, but I was quite young. I have seen it many times since, so often that you could wake me up at night and ask me to quote the lines from any given scene.
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I love submarines. If you want to make me happy, you take me to see a sub - which is exactly what Mr Bookscorpion did on our first date, on a Tango class here in Hamburg. I've seen the majority of all museum subs in Western Europe. The USS Pampanito was pretty much the first thing I visited in San Francisco.
submarine

I also love tanks and battleships. Mr Bookscorpion and me visited the Panzermuseum a while ago and while I wasn't the only woman there, I certainly was the only interested woman. I'm not that much into technical specs, but I know enough to fudge my way through a conversation and often get a look of total disbelief. Because it's still weird to many people that a woman would know stuff about tanks - and I'm a history geek as well.
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I'm not exactly sure what it is about them I love so much. But I have a weak spot for big machinery in general, whether it's a submarine, a tunnel boring machine or a particle accelerator. They just have this elegance and beauty (even when they are machines of war, which I'm well aware of, in case you are wondering).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Speak Out With Your Geek Out: RPGs

I've been a woman, but mostly I have been a man.
I fell in love with men and women and I married (a woman).
I stood my ground against powerful enemies, but I also turned and ran to fight another day.
I was hurt many times. I went insane and I died (quite a few times). I came back from the dead. Twice.

I know how to fire a cannon, a crossbow and a blunderbuss, I can use a sniper rifle, but at other times I can't hit a barn door at five feet. I know Kung-Fu and I can use a lariat and a whip.
I've been a hero, a scoundrel and sometimes a coward, but usually I'm a survivor. I tend to be very loyal to my friends and God help you if you mess with them.

I've flown an airship and several spaceships, I've driven a steam powered carriage with eight legs, a 1935 Buick and I know my way around a sailing vessel.
I can ride a horse (but I prefer a mule), I know how to ride an elephant and I know how to get a herd of cattle where I want them. I can speak to rats.

I've been shipwrecked on a lonely island, I have travelled by dog-sled through the Arctic, I have crossed deserts and I got stranded on a planet light years from home. I have been hunted by the Inquisition. I've disarmed a bomb, with the countdown at 0:01.
I've fought vampires, werewolves, demons, aliens, things straight out of nightmares - but the scariest enemies often were the normal humans.

I have been a vampire, a ghoul, a mage, a cowboy, a scientist, a doctor, a pilot, a soldier, a merchant, a hunter, a smuggler, a professional poker player, a reporter, a diplomat and once I was a ghost.

I play pen and paper role-playing games.

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Second post for Speak Out With Your Geek Out

Monday, September 12, 2011

Speak Out With Your Geek Out: Bugs

I love bugs. To be precise, I love invertebrates, insects in particular and true bugs most of all. I think it all began with the pond my parents had in their garden – there always was something to see. Pondskaters, backswimmers, a leech, lot of beetles and dragonflies – I loved the dragonfly larvae in particular. They are fierce hunters, like their parents, and if you catch one with your hands, it can give you a surprisingly hefty punch with its jaws.

My parents taught me about the animals I encountered and they never said that any of them were ugly or gross – although I do know that my mother is afraid of spiders and earwigs. I started to keep woodlice as pets, my father built me a terrarium for them and I soon had a busy colony. I remember watching a woodlice give birth (the eggs hatch in a pouch underneath the mother’s belly) and I found the tiny little woodlice every bit as adorable as a puppy or a lamb.

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My love of true bugs began with a pair of assassin bugs (Platymeris biguttata) I bought at a reptile expo. Despite being predators and able to deliver an extremely painful sting with their beak, they are docile, very social and fascinating to watch. They look like little aliens and of the many invertebrates I have kept as pets, they are my favourites, along with my land hermit crabs.

Invertebrates never cease to amaze me with their sheer variety. Every time I think I’ve seen it all, along comes a totally outrageous creature that looks or behaves in a way that makes my jaw drop. Take a look at the bombardier beetle, who shoots boiling liquid out of his butt. Several hundred times per second. I mean, who would dare to come up with such a creature in fiction?

Velvet worms look like bumbling tubes with stumpy legs, but they can run extremely fast and will catch their prey by glueing it down with their sticky spit. They also hunt in packs (at least some of their species do) and the dominant female is the first to eat. If they were bigger, they could give any lion a run for its money.

(the video is from David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth, which I highly recommend for anyone with an interest in invertebrates)

Water bears are tiny and they are everywhere. If some moss grows on your porch or roof, you will find a water bear in it, you just need a microscope. They are also pretty much indestructible. And totally adorable to boot, ambling along in a drop of water under your microscope.


What I like best is that I can find something interesting pretty much everywhere, just by taking a closer look. Often I turn over a leaf or a stone and find something I have never seen before. The sense of wonder I experience as a child sitting at the edge of our pond has never left me.

This post is for Speak Out with Your Geek Out. Join us and write about your geeky hobbies from the 12th to the 16th this month.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What remains

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I harvested my balcony potatoes last weekend and I got some bones to go with them. This was a fancy mouse I buried half a year ago. The potatoes clearly made good use of her body, there was a big root clump that contained all the bones. The coin is a Euro cent, sligthly smaller than a penny.
The big bone on top is the pelvic bone, the one below is the lower jaw, you can still see the molars. The small longish bones are hand and leg bones, the smallest one a finger. Plus some vertebrae. I'm going to try this again in a much smaller pot, I would love to have a complete skeleton.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Matrix XP



It came up a while ago during a Shadowrun session and I finally found it again on Youtube. "Waffles, lots of waffles" gets quoted a lot in my RPG sessions.