Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wisdom from the Fathers - Saint Gregory of Nyssa

From St. Gregory of Nyssa:
"Do you ask why God was born among men? Here is the reason for God's presence among men. Our nature was sick and needed a doctor. Man had fallen and needed someone to raise him up. He who had ceased to participate in the good needed someone to bring him back to it. He who was shut in darkness needed the presence of life. The prisoner was looking for someone to ransom him, the captive for someone to take his part. He who was under the yoke of slavery was looking for someone to set him free. Were these small and unworthy reasons to make God to come down and visit human nature?" 

From a commentary on the Nicene Creed.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Roleplaying - a lifelong hobby

It occurred to me while I was composing this post that I've been playing RPGs for almost ¾ of my life. I was introduced to Traveller when I was 12 or 13, and I've been playing ever since. I've played other games as well, but I always come back to Traveller.
For those who don't know already, roleplaying games are a social activity in which a group of people collectively make up a story. Most of the group use a set of rules to create an alter-ego, an imaginary other self that exists in the imaginary world. One member of the group, let's call him the referee, takes the role of the imaginary world, telling the others what they see, hear, and know about the imaginary world that the other characters inhabit. The players are presented with a situation or problem to respond to, and they tell the referee how their characters respond. The referee, guided by the rules, and also by what makes a good story, decides what results from the characters actions, and they characters respond to this, and so on. The way to 'win' this kind of game is not to defeat the other players, or even the referee, but to achieve the goals the players set for their characters. These goals are limited only by the imagination of the group and the structure set up by the rules. There are rules sets for fantasy stories, science fiction stories, super hero stories, spy stories, explorers, crimefighters, criminals, monsters and aliens and that doesn't even cover it all.
The game I mentioned earlier, Traveller, is officially subtitled “Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future”, so it's obviously got a sci-fi orientation. The original rules were published in 1977, and since then the rules and the imaginary universe the rules depict have undergone several revisions. I have tried several of the rules versions, but I've always come back to the original rules, now known as “Classic Traveller”.
Classic Traveller (CT) is now known as an “old-school” rules system, which is fine by me. CT has its roots in the science fiction stories of the 50's, 60's and 70's; authors like Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, H. Beam Piper, Andre Norton, E.C. Tubb and Robert Heinlein have all influenced the Traveller rules and 'feel'. Almost all the stories I have written or at least begun to write in the last ten years have been influenced by Traveller and its literary antecedents. The story Snowball, which I posted last week, is a Traveller story.
As the game was published the same year that the original Star Wars movie debuted, and two years before Star Trek the Motion Picture, these two currents of popular science fiction did not have a great deal of influence on Traveller. Which to my mind is a good thing. Movies are obviously a visual means of telling a story, while RPGs are not visual. They are conversational and can move at a pace far slower than what is acceptable to a movie audience. So while the general population may be most familiar with those two film franchises, Traveller has gone in a different direction. The visual genre seems to gravitate to bright sparkly things and technobabble, because of their visual appeal, and the ability to keep the plot moving without detailed explanations of things. Traveller, and many other RPGs take the time in the background rules to explain things and lacking the visual element, have to use more verbal means to describe things. It is possible for players to spend an entire evening's game session just playing out a scene that might take two minutes of screen time. Usually, that means the two minutes is a scene of combat, since most game systems have their most detailed rules for how to punch, shoot or stab someone/thing else. Of course, conflict of this type is a mainstay of films, and to some extent books, but the classic authors I've read tend to gloss over combat scenes or just focus on one character's limited viewpoint of the battle.
Traveller also evokes the classic sci-fi authors in its approach to technology. Speculations from the 1960's about what computers would look like, or how space ships would work can seem quite laughable now, but the authors it seems to me minimized the issue by keeping technology in the background. Novels like Starship Troopers and Cosmic Computer had 'spacey' technology, and often described its effects rather than its principles of operation. But technology was secondary to the story, which was about people, normal, everyday people who faced the same kinds of struggles we face – interpersonal conflicts, political struggles, growing up, and the like. In other words, I read these stories because I related to the protagonists, not because I thought they had neat gadgets. So Traveller takes what I call the “low-tech approach to high-tech” - there's enough equipment described in the game rules that players can get stuff done, but not so much that a character can just whip out a gadget and instantly solve whatever problem they're facing.
One of the best parts of the Traveller game, for me, has been creating my own universe. The game provides rules for describing planets, their populations and governments; and leave the rest to the imagination of the players. So far my universe has over 150 planets, some part of large interstellar empires, some planets barely scraping by as independent 'nations'. Eventually I will figure out how to post an image of the map that I've developed for my universe so you can see what I mean. I have made use of my real-life study of political theory to model the various governments and other groups, and to decide how the various polities will interact with each other. It just makes more sense for the universe to be a dynamic rather than static place. Characters in this universe can have influence over significant international events.
Next time in this series, I will introduce some of the characters and locations in my Traveller universe (usually shortened to MTU).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why the library is cooler than you think

I suppose this one's been around for a while, but I still think it's hilarious. I've used this as my "cold opening" when talking to first year English classes. It gets their attention at least. Enjoy!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Movie Review: White Christmas

I don't go to the movies often enough to try reviewing current movies, so I will instead write reviews of old movies that I enjoy. Here's the first one, that I wrote while I was deciding whether I should start a blog. 


This is my favorite Christmas movie. The plot follows the career of two army buddies, Bob (Bing Crosby) and Phil (Danny Kaye) who go into show business, and make good. At a club in Florida, they encounter a 'sister act' of the outstanding singer Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and outstanding dancer Judy (Vera-Ellen). The guys are attracted at once, but things are never simple in the movies. Through a series of comic circumstances the four find themselves at a ski lodge/inn in Vermont that is in financial trouble. This becomes important to the guys when they discover that the inn is run by their former Army commander General Waverly (Dean Jaeger). The guys cook up a big plan for a Big Show to help out their beloved General, leading to some great song-and-dance numbers and more comic interaction between the four leads as Bob courts the hesitant Betty and Judy courts the oblivious Phil. Eventually the Big Show starts interfering with the romance, and Betty splits for New York. Bob pursues her, hoping to patch things up while still trying to pull off the show. Of course it all works out in the end, the inn is saved, the show works, and the two couples end up happily together. We all knew that was coming, the fun is in watching the incredibly talented lead four show their stuff.
   The film's pace is brisk but not hurried, and the backdrops are pretty; you can tell the whole thing was shot on sound stages rather than live, but you watch this movie for the actors, not the scenery. The famous costumer Edith Head did the wardrobes, which adds in a subtle way to the visual appeal. There's a good crop of supporting actors in the film, most notably the hilarious Mary Wickes as the General's housekeeper, who moves the plot along, although not always intentionally. The dialogue is snappy without any modern sarcasm, and comic exchanges abound. When Bob calls his theatrical manager to bring the show to Vermont, he asks how much it will cost. The answer, unheard, provokes a shocked “Wow.” to which Phil asks “How much is Wow?”. Bob: “Somewhere between ouch! and boing!” Phil:“Wow!”
The film has very few low spots, one being the difficulty that arises between Bob & Betty that causes her to leave. It felt contrived, as most cases of misunderstandings do. Also, Betty is watching when Bob reveals that his Big Plan is not what she thought, but there is no reason for her to have been there. You could say that one or two of the dance numbers from the Big Show are just filler material, if it weren't for the fact that Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye are doing the dancing. Who cares if it doesn't move the plot when the dancing is this good?
Lots of singing, dancing, comedy, romance and a great big heartwarming ending make this a feel-good film for you & your sweetie or for the whole family. There's something for everyone in White Christmas. 

I'll be happy to take suggestions of movies to review.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Snowball

A few months back, I dusted off a short story I had written years before, cleaned it up and the folks at Lantern Hollow Press were kind enough to publish it in their quarterly e-zine, Gallery of Worlds. 

SNOWBALL
  The Gentry-class space liner Lady Caroline accelerated smoothly on its way, departing the planet Winter, en route to the hyperspace limit from which it could safely jump the five light-years distance to the planet Dumas. The ship was small, as liners went in the space lanes of the Talaveran Empire. A long tube, rounded at either end, the Lady Caroline offered a selective passenger list and quiet comforts. Ships of her class were the choice of those who wanted to travel in comfort and not be disturbed. The Third Officer made his way along the narrow access corridor that ran the length of Lady Caroline's port side. It was a cramped passageway, but it was the quickest way to get to Engineering.  The basso hum of the fusion plant was louder here than in the passenger staterooms on the other side of the bulkhead but the officer preferred it to tiptoeing around staring at the ceiling to avoid upsetting the privacy-conscious passengers with unwanted eye contact.


He came to a section of the corridor where the ceiling was lower, as it passed underneath where one of the ship's lifeboats was housed.  As he ducked his head, the Third Officer noticed a large tool case against the exterior bulkhead.  One of the maintenance crew must have left it here, he thought as he picked it up so that he could give it to the engineer. The crewman would get a stiff reprimand from the demanding engineer.

The officer never made it to Engineering. Instead he vanished as that section of the ship's hull was ripped open in a ferocious explosion. The blast wave tore down the corridor and into the engineering compartment, spraying debris.  Lady Caroline shook from bow to stern as the explosion threw her into a wobbling roll to starboard. Her thrusters died as the debris peppered the machinery.  The ship's power plant failed, then flickered back on a few seconds later. The emergency backup power was a fraction slow and the internal artificial gravity vanished for that second; crew, passengers and everything not bolted down were thrown against the starboard bulkheads as the ship rolled around them. In that mad second everything and everyone tumbled about like loose change in a clothes drier. Even when the power returned, damage to wiring and hardware left parts of the ship with little or no internal gravity so people and furniture continued to be tossed about. Damage alarms wailed in every compartment as Lady Caroline tumbled helplessly through space.
You can read the rest of it at:  Lantern Hollow Press

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why "Deep in the Stacks"?

As I said, I'm a librarian. We often refer to our book shelves as 'stacks'. For a career that isn't rocket science, we have a fair amount of professional jargon.
I'm a librarian because I love books. I love to read, but more than that, I work in what I call a “great big candy store for the brain”. I can wander down any given aisle, reach out my hand without looking and pull a book from the shelf, and find therein something interesting to read about. I do not know how anyone could be a librarian without a hearty curiosity. I tell my boys now and again that “the world is full of interesting stuff – all you have to do is look around.”
Now I am an expert at very few things, maybe at nothing at all. But I can with confidence enter into a conversation with just about anyone on just about any topic because at some point in my career (over 10 years now) I've run across a book or journal article about it and I remember just enough to ask intelligent questions. That's the key to conversing when you know a lot less than the other person. Ask questions, and let them do the talking. Everyone likes to talk about the things they know, so show your interest and let them impress you. They'll appreciate it, and will have a favorable impression of you.
When I'm working at the Reference desk (the place where librarians sit and hope someone will come and ask them something so they can sound clever) I get questions on just about every topic there is. College libraries are like that. Every time I get a new question, I add that to my collection of experiences and things I know just a little about. That's one of the great things about being a librarian. You are always learning something you didn't know about. It doesn't matter that I know (next to) nothing about what the student is interested in because as I often say, “I don't have to know that, I just have to know where to find it”. I try to teach the students how to find information, my specialty, and they, without knowing it, teach me about their specialties. 
So in summary, being a librarian is the coolest job in the world. If you are a trivia loving voracious reader with a "what happens if I push this button" curiosity. Your experience may differ. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Deep in the Stacks

So what is this blog all about?
Well, me. The things I work with, stuff I read, games I play and so forth. To begin with, I work in a library. For a college. Which one doesn't matter, because I won't be talking about it that much, at least not in the specifics. If you know me personally, you know where I work. When I talk about the library, I'll talk about things that apply to libraries generally. .

I anticipate writing about a lot of things. I like movies, especially old ones, so I'm going to try my hand at writing movie reviews. I have two boys, so there's lots of potential material there. My family is involved with our local homeschooling co-op, where I teach junior high students the art of fencing. We're also very involved with our church as Orthodox Christians. I'm a fan of reading, naturally enough for a librarian, and will discuss books that I'm reading or have read. For many years I have played old-school pencil-and-paper roleplaying games, which has recently branched off into short story writing.