Category Archives: Just For Fun

What Pi Sounds Like

Happy Pi Day! I can think of no better way to celebrate 3.14 than Michael John Blake’s fun musical composition that takes the digits of pi (3.1415926535…) and turns them into something akin to a Schoenbergian twelve-tone row that never fully repeats.

Where to Find Me at PAX East 2011

I’ll be at PAX East in Boston this year, occasionally wandering the halls and perhaps seeing if anyone wants to try a game of Fiasco, but if you want to find me, the Interactive Fiction Hospitality Suite is a good place to start. The suite is in the Westin Waterfront Hotel, which means you don’t actually need a PAX East badge to come by! There’s also an IF Event Room in the Westin’s Alcott room that will be open on Saturday.

So, you ask, when will you be in either of those rooms? Luckily, I have answers!

Meet the IF Community! Friday from 7:30 to 9 PM I’ll be in the hospitality suite mixing and mingling.

Setting as a Character in Narrative Games. Saturday, 2 – 3 PM, Alcott room. I’m on a panel with Andrew Plotkin, Rob Wheeler and Dean Tate talking about settings tell stories and inform the player character’s actions.

IF Demo Fair. Saturday, 8 – 10 PM, Alcott room. People will be demonstrating all kinds of new user interfaces, modes of NPC interaction, and more. Want to see a typewriter on which you can play Zork? Stop by!

There’s lots more going on, and I’ll be in and out throughout the convention, but the three events listed above are when I can guarantee I’ll be there. So come say hi! I’m the bald guy with a goatee and a slightly manic look.

A Quick Business Presentation Tip

Let’s say that you’re making a PowerPoint presentation on improving businesses.

Let’s further say that you want to illustrate how the members of your business’s management team must work together. You decide to use a picture of gears to show how the team interlocks and turns as one.

You go to iStockPhoto and grab this picture:

Interlocking machine gears that won't turn
(source)

If you then show this presentation to a bunch of scientists and engineers, don’t be surprised if they point out that these gears won’t turn.

iStockPhoto has a lot of other gears that you can choose from. Please don’t pick the photo that looks like it belongs on There, I Fixed It.

What a Fiasco!

Fiasco bills itself as “A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control”. It’s a one-shot role-playing game that helps three to five players tell a neo-noir story along the lines of the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo, Jackie Brown, Bad Santa, and Out of Sight. It requires no game master, takes about three hours to play to completion, and is a tremendous amount of fun.

You start with a playset, a list of relationships, locations, needs, and objects. The playsets evoke a particular feel, such as a small southern town or mobster London, and are the Lego blocks out of which you will build a story of messed-up people doing terrible things. You roll a bunch of dice and use them to choose elements from the playset to create the story. Everyone has a relationship with the players to either side of them. They range from family relationships (siblings, parent and child) to romantic ones (current spouses, former lovers) to criminal ones (gambler and bookie, embezzler and accountant, drug supplier and dealer). Each relationship gets an additional detail like an object (“photographs, possibly incriminating”), a location (“the ball field”), or a need (“to get rich through the death of an elderly person”).

This setup phase is a blast in and of itself, and starts setting up the dominoes that will fall one after the other as the game progresses. To give you a feel for how the setup helps guarantee mayhem, here are the relationships we had in our game:

  • Richard “Dick” Williamson and his wife Kiki, who have a secret side-business selling marital aids “for educational purposes” in their little Alabama town.
  • Kiki and her old friend Junior are secretly selling illicit Viagra from the back of Junior’s panel van he also uses as his mobile pawn shop.
  • Meanwhile, Junior is palling around with his drinking buddy and parole officer, Ronnie, who is a mall ninja with a penchant for saying, “Say, have I shown you my new baton?” He spends a lot of time telling Junior about how he wants to get laid by his childhood sweetheart (not played by a player) and not telling Junior that he has erectile dysfunction and has never had sex before.
  • Dick works for Mary Beth, owner of Vantage Services, a medical claims processor and the largest business in town. Dick’s had a crush on Mary Beth for the longest time.
  • Meanwhile Mary Beth and Ronnie are making extra money by processing fake medical claims for several of Ronnie’s parolees, who are in no position to argue with Ronnie. That’s slow money, though, and Mary Beth and Ronnie are looking to get rich faster. And wouldn’t you know, Ronnie knows a guy who’s dealing in illicit Viagra….

Right away we’ve got a love triangle, two sets of people competing for the same drugs, and a whole bunch of lies that need to be covered up. As you might imagine, it only got worse from there. As the game played out in two acts, including a twist in the middle (known as the Tilt) that made things go from worse to worst, everything snowballed to the point that Mary Beth and Ronnie planned to steal Viagra from Junior and Kiki to sell it at the local old folks’ home, not knowing that Junior had topped the Viagra off with similar-looking pills of rat poison. In the end Junior was dead, shot after accidentally hitting Ronnie with his panel van and interrupting Dick’s attempt to beat Ronnie to death with his own baton. Kiki ran off but was arrested for drunk driving, though in jail she met the real man of her dreams. And Mary Beth, master manipulator and schemer, got off scott free and was rewarded with a windfall of money.

You’ve probably noticed that the game, like the movies after which it is modeled, tends to be fairly unsavory. It lends itself to mordant humor, and its stories are set in a universe where the undeserving are often rewarded while everyone else’s lives are left in shambles. It’s also a more demanding game than some RPGs, requiring collaborative storytelling, free-wheeling improvisation, and a willingness to roll with the changing story. But the reward is great, as our game of Fiasco, like the others I’ve read about, was hilarious in all the wrong ways.

Bully Pulpit Games has released thirteen free playsets to keep the game interesting, and have provided a free sample of the book to give you an idea of what you’re in for. The PDF only costs $10, or for $25 you get the PDF and a printed book. Even if you don’t play Fiasco, the book is worth reading. If you do play Fiasco…well, I imagine you’re in for a wonderful time making your terrible characters meet horrible ends.

Teaching is Physically Demanding

On Twitter, I joked about having one thumb and a newly-cut pile of lumber. When I later explained that, no, I hadn’t actually lost one of my thumbs, I said that my high school biology teacher had 1.5 thumbs.

It turns out that this is far more common than I would have expected. At last count, six others have chimed in about their teachers who had missing fingers or toes. My friend Joe Peacock had one who switch to teaching math after losing four fingers teaching shop class. Sadly he did not teach them base 6 math, but Joe did ask if he could only calculate pi to six digits.

My 2010 GMX Convention Schedule

Next weekend, October 22nd through the 24th, I’ll be up in Nashville, TN attending GMX and holding forth on several panels. Yes, yes, I appear to be turning into one of those people who go to science fiction conventions just to blather at others. What can you do.

I know: you can go to the Radisson Opryland next weekend and hear me talk about science!

Science of the Whedonverse
Saturday 2:00 PM, McGavock A
As at Dragon*Con, I’ll be talking about the actual science behind some of the ideas in Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Sadly I don’t have Jennifer Ouellette and Jason Schneiderman making smart observations, as I did at Dragon*Con, but hey, how hard can it be to talk brain science when you’re a physicist?

WhatTheCast Live!
Sunday 12:00 noon, McGavock B
Crispy, Brian and I once again free-associate about various nerd topics, from recent films to Gliese 581 c, as part of a live recording of our Parsec-nominated podcast.

There Ain’t No Stealth in Space
Sunday 1:00 PM, McGavock B
It’s really, really hard to make a spaceship be invisible in outer space, no matter how hard you try. I’ll run through the science of why that is and happily debunk your fool-proof scheme for making a cloaked spaceship.

So come on over and listen to me pontificate! When I’m not paneling I’ll be hanging out chatting, or possibly making a fool of myself in Rock Band.

Finding Lyrics Everywhere

The Gregory Brothers have made a name for themselves by writing songs whose lyrics come from YouTube videos and then auto-tuning the original speakers to make them effectively sing the song. Their most watched one is undoubtedly the Bed Intruder song, featuring fellow Huntsville resident Antoine Dodson.

Their work is an example of using found lyrics — texts that weren’t originally written to be art and setting them to music. It’s a lot like what Marchel Duchamp did with urinals and bike wheels.

Sometimes the composers are highlighting the bathetic humor of combining high-art compositions with goofy texts, like how Gabriel Kahane set Craigslist ads to music in his song cycle Craigslistlieder. I highly recommend “For Trade Assless Chaps”, “You Looked Sexy”, and especially “Neurotic and Lonely”, all of which you can download for free.

(An aside: Kahane’s not the only one to be inspired by Craigslist. Sam Krahn also created a whole song cycle out of Craigslist Missed Connections.)

Sometimes the composer seeks to provoke or comment on the original text. Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads borrows the words of reporters, politicians, and survivors and is stunning, powerful, and harrowing. Phil Kline took three of Donald Rumsfeld’s responses to the pressset them to music, finding poetry in Rumsfeld’s answers. He’s not the only one, either; Bryant Kong did the same thing.

Not all musicians turn the text into lyrics. Sometimes they write music around the person’s actual speech.

I find this stuff fascinating because it blurs the line between art and not-art, because it illuminates and elevates the banal or bizarre, and because so much of the music written using found lyrics is so well done. Want to hear more songs using found lyrics? The October 2nd episode of New Sounds covered many of these and other examples.

And that should be enough to fill the void of your Friday.

My Dragon*Con 2010 Experience

Let’s see. At Dragon*Con I’ve led a thousand people in a sing-along to “Re: Your Brains”. I’ve had a naked man tell me, “Hey I saw you on TV!” I’ve even been cosplayed. Really, what can top all of that?

I know. Let’s talk about Scott Adsit.

Scott Adsit, who is best known for his role on 30 Rock

He’s best known for his work on the TV show 30 Rock, but he’s also a gifted improv artist and has done work with Adult Swim. One afternoon, as Misty and I were waiting for an elevator to our room, I saw him waiting as well.

I am a cool, suave man. I did not rush up to him and say “I LOVE YOUR WORK YOU ARE AWESOME!!!!!” because then we would have had to wait for an elevator in strained silence. He was giving off a “please ignore me” vibe, so I gave him his space.

Of course, then we all got on an elevator with some three hundred of our closest friends and began the slow trek up to the 16th floor.

The elevator stopped at every floor to let people out. At the third stop, when the woman who got off the elevator turned around and looked back in the elevator, her eyes widened. “You’re on DCTV, aren’t you?” she said to me.

“Er, yes.”

As the elevator doors closed, the guy to my right said, “Awright, man, DCTV! You’re famous!”

I could not look in Scott Adsit’s direction. “Thanks, but I’m really not that famous.”

“No, man, you are! You’re famous in these five hotels.”

If, on my deathbed, you ask me my greatest regret, it will be this: I did not say, “Thanks, but it’s not like I’m on a national TV show like 30 Rock or something.” It would have been a moment of me saying, yeah, Scott, I know who you are, and I know you’re the one with the talent and actual fame outside the convention, but I’m not going to call you out over it. Just so you know.

Instead, I said something lame about my con fame being like internet fame and then staggered off the elevator on the 16th floor, right in front of Scott Adsit. When we got to our room I told Misty who he was and we giggled over the weirdness of the convention, where I can be more famous than a guy who is on a TV show, even if it’s only on a semi-major network like NBC.

My panels went well, and the “There Ain’t No Stealth In Space!” talk was standing room only. It turns out that if you tell a bunch of geeks that something’s impossible, they’ll come and argue with you! My talk on metamaterials was also well-attended, thank goodness. I’ve got my scripts and my slides from both talks, if you want to play “STEPHEN LECTURES ME ABOUT PHYSICS: THE HOME GAME”. Every time you see a # in the script, go to the next slide.

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

(Grab the script | Download the presentation)

I got to geek out about the science of the Whedonverse with Jason Schneiderman, a neuroscientist who had a lot of smart things to say about Dollhouse, and Jennifer Ouellette, author of The Physics of the Buffyverse and the just-now-out The Calculus Diaries. That was a lot of fun, as was our now-annual live taping of WhatTheCast?. I also talked some about my day job on a robotics panel and argued with a guy who wanted every car equipped with a military radar unit to guide it.

I know I’m forgetting something. What could it be?

Oh, right, Dragoncon TV! Above is the mock trailer I did for a spoof version of 2012. Below is what happens when I have both a long line to navigate and a portal gun. Many thanks to my good friend Alex White for the fine special effects in both.

That, of course, just scratches the surface of the weird and wild time I had at the convention. But it’s all you’re getting from me. YOU CAN’T MAKE ME TALK.

(Of course, my five panels plus numerous DCTV appearances would argue otherwise, but hey, this is my blog, so I’m allowed to make any crazy claims I want.)