Powerful prose passages

We're all familiar with the feeling we get when we're swept away by an incredible piece of music. Often it's a particular passage that hits us in just the right way; it's one of the few ways you can reliably make me emotional. Not surprisingly, that's also the reason I've done my music plugs bit - to share some of those experiences with you.

But it's not just music that can touch a person - every once and a while, I'll go back to one of my favorite books and read a passage that moves me, or just makes my spine tingle. Here's a short list (which should also be taken as recommendations):

Ian McDonald

If there's a better magical realist sci-fi author than Ian McDonald, I haven't found her. McDonald's prose style is unique, punchy, powerful. There's a passage in Desolation Road, the first of his two Mars novels (novels? is that even the right word?) where rain falls on the Viking probe for the first time. Note - and this can be said for nearly all of the passages listed here - that some of its impact comes from the lead-up throughout the book and it doesn't hit at full strength without that background, but it's still enough that Jo Walton over at Tor.com used it as a reading at her wedding. That's enough of an endorsement for me.

Following up Desolation Road is Ares Express, the story of a young girl going on an adventure that crosses the face of Mars. The introduction to the book is also our introduction to her, and there's no better way to introduce both a character and a world than the first five pages of that book. Do yourself a favor - go to Barnes and Noble, find Ares Express, and read the prologue. If you are not immediately moved to buy the thing, I fear for your soul.

Terry Pratchett

Yeah, yeah, we know - Pratchett is almost cliche: prolific, goofy, a geek's geek's favorite writer. But when he's on, he's on. And seldom is he more on than in his characterization of his, well... characters, who are always simultaneously relatable and larger-than-life. Death's introduction to Mort in Mort is one of those beautiful little pieces of prose that sends tingles down your spine. And the parable of Granny Weatherwax and the farmer's wife in Carpe Jugulum... well, that's some pretty intense stuff there, too.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Certainly, there are some holy crap moments in Kay's largely low-fantasy, alternate-historical fiction, but there's a passage in Sailing to Sarantium that literally forced me to put down the book because I couldn't read through the tears that were streaming down my face. It's not a sad passage - I just found it that powerful, like when you hear the opening of the last movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony for the first time. Kay's description of the small chapel in Sauradia - and Crispin's reaction to it, punctuated by Kasia's response - is so amazing that if it were any shorter I'd include an excerpt right here.

Anyway, those are my top picks - if you've got any of your own to suggest, please do!

On being your own medical advocate

You know your body better than anyone else does -
even your doctor.

I was recently reminded why this is so important.

My endocrinologist and I have been working on getting my hormones to what she considers to be optimal levels. Testosterone was easy; my body never wanted to produce it in the first place and my levels were low (even for a woman) after only a few months of therapy.

Estradiol, the primary female hormone.
Estradiol, the primary female hormone.

Estrogen has been a little bit stickier. Taking the maximum safe dose of oral estradiol, my levels are still about 40% lower than what she'd like. Because of that, at our last visit we decided to try switching from oral delivery to a transdermal patch. On paper it seemed like a perfect idea; the patch is a more reliable delivery method and (theoretically) has fewer side effects.

So I switched. And in a couple of days I was feeling like absolute crap. Anxiety, restlessness, fatigue, progressing to full-on depression - inside a week I was feeling like I had before I'd started hormone replacement. A lot of the physical symptoms of transition were fading, too (I won't get into details there, but trust me).

Continue reading On being your own medical advocate

How being a geek prepared me for my transition.

The media we consume help to shape our worldviews. That's a scientifically-proven fact.

A lot of people describe gender transition as long and difficult and generally unpleasant. That's also a fact - there are fits and starts and lots of awkwardness and it's easy to become impatient with the whole thing. I can't say I'm completely immune to that stress, but being a geek has certainly put me in a place where the process is manageable. Here's what my geekdom has taught me:

We are not our bodies.

Geek media is full of transhumanism. As long as I can remember I've been absorbing stories about people who replace parts of their bodies, transform into fantastical creatures, or escape their physical forms entirely.

More importantly, these things are often seen as conscious decisions. In Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, Kusanagi is reminded by her teammates that she'd be a more formidable fighter if she chose a male prosthetic body. She tells them that she might one day but for now she enjoys being female (and let's face it, she's plenty effective as she is). Why shouldn't we also choose the bodies we want? Why wouldn't we?

When Tony Stark's body is made useless by a terrorist mastermind, he effectively builds himself a new one. Out of scraps. In a cave. In Afghanistan. When there's something wrong with your body, you fix it. A heart is hard to replace, but gender... that's practically a DIY project. You don't need to be a nuclear physicist or world-famous inventor to understand hormone replacement - just GTS and talk to your friendly neighborhood doctor.

100%-ing anything requires patience and perseverance.

I've got a friend who is playing through Final Fantasy Tactics. He's hacked the game to make all the characters into his friends, and he's picked builds which he things will make the characters reflect our personalities. (Evidently, I'm a Priest/Time Mage, but whatever.)

Watching him play, one of the things I am reminded of is how in JRPGs improving your characters often involves downgrading them now so you can upgrade them later. You might have to put a character into a lousy job or equip them with a crappy weapon in order for them to learn a powerful new skill. Sometimes you put your party into a state where they're struggling with even simple fights, often through hours and hours of grinding - but when it's done you can do amazing things and defeat any challenge.

Transition is no different than switching jobs in Tactics. At first you lose access to some of your old skills; everything is harder; you might have to run from some fights that you could have breezed through before. But you also see the progress bar ticking up every day. You watch the new skills and abilities light up. And eventually you max out the new job, pick your best skills from both classes, and kick butt for the rest of the game.

Transition makes you you, not someone else.

I don't recommend reading anything by Piers Anthony but if you have to, you could do worse than the award-winning A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in his Xanth YA fantasy series.

Magician Trent's power is to transform any living thing into any other living thing. In the story, he transforms an ally, Bink, into a sphinx. He explains that he hasn't transformed Bink into an average sphinx, nor into some Platonic ideal of a sphinx, but rather into a "Bink-Sphinx" - a creature that only Bink could become. And if you read the book, you'll find out that Bink-Sphinx is pretty frickin' awesome.

When we transition, a lot of us look at the women around us and imagine we will (or should) look and act like them. That's one of the most harmful things we can do because it sets completely the wrong expectations. I'm not going to transform into the average gal I pass on the street. I'm not going to transform into the woman I would have been if I'd been born with two X chromosomes. I'm going to be the woman that only I could have become - the "Dave-Dana", if you will.

XX-Dana would probably have been shorter, slighter, girlier, probably straighter. Sure, she'd probably have been prettier, too. But you know what? I'm never going to be that person. I'm going to be tall, athletic, queer, butch. I'm going to be more handsome than pretty. And what I've come to realize - and appreciate - is that that's also pretty awesome. I've learned to embrace the body, voice, personality, and lifestyle I'm going to get to have. I'm looking forward to being Dave-Dana, because she's also going to be pretty frickin' awesome.

Though she is highly unlikely to fight any dragons...

[Note: I ended up turning out femme and reasonably pretty. That's what you get for engaging in speculation way before the fact. --Ed.]

I wanna tell you about the time I almost died

Foreword

This is a post I wrote last winter, after I had made the decision not to transition.  I was saving it for a time when I had fought through the worst part of the depression and was open enough about being trans that I felt comfortable sharing it.

That time never came.  Instead, it's April and I'm a good quarter of the way to being a girl.  Life is odd like that sometimes.  But it would be a waste to throw away a heartfelt accounting of my experiences over the past year, so I decided to resurrect and rewrite the post in the context of everything that's happened since.  Enjoy!

I wanna tell you about the time I almost died

I never thought it would happen to me.  Not at this age.  But if I go back to the beginning that'll take forever.  So, let's start more recently...

♫ Tiiiime is on my side... ♫

Continue reading I wanna tell you about the time I almost died

What the hell, Java.

Here's how you instantiate a specific template or generic version of an object in C++, C#, and Java:

// C++
MyClass<TemplateType>* myObject = new MyClass<TemplateType>(params);
// C#
MyClass<GenericType> myObject = new MyClass<GenericType>(params);
// Java
MyClass<GenericType> myObject = new MyClass<GenericType>(params);

So far, so good. You can tell C# and Java inherited the syntax directly from C++.

Here's how you call a specific template or generic version of a method in each of the languages:

// C++
myObject->method<TemplateType>(params);
// C#
myObject.method<GenericType>(params);
// Java
myObject.<GenericType>method(params); // ???

How does that make any sense?

Choice of N: a simple but effective GM technique

Scotty: How thick would a piece of your Plexiglass need to be at sixty feet by ten feet to withstand the pressure of eighteen thousand cubic feet of water?
Dr. Nichols: Oh, that's easy - six inches. We carry stuff that big in stock.
Scotty: I noticed. Now suppose - just suppose - I were to show you a way to manufacture a wall that would do the same job but be only one inch thick? Would that be worth something to you, eh?
Dr. Nichols: You're joking!
-- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Say a character in one of your games is going to do something offscreen, or perform some complex task that could have a number of possible interesting results. Or maybe the player just missed a session and you want to find out what happened to them.  What do you do?  You could spend a bunch of time having them make rolls and play out solo scenes, but that's boring for the other players and not very creative.

Now suppose - just suppose - I were to show you a technique that would give you all the benefits of playing out a montage or flashback scene but require only one roll?

Would that be worth something to you, eh?

Continue reading Choice of N: a simple but effective GM technique

Live GameScreen 2.5.0 released, now with network support!

Live GameScreen is a product Matthew Highcove and I provide for free that people can use to create a more immersive tabletop role-playing experience.

New features in 2.5.0 include:

  • You can now view the player screen on a separate computer (instead of requiring a second monitor) using the included Live PlayerScreen software.
  • Fate Accelerated and Fate Core (by Evil Hat Productions) are now supported.

Direct download link: livegamescreen-2.5.0.zip

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Playing Dread over G+ Hangouts

Dread is a great game.  It's a horror/suspense/slasher movie simulator, and one of the few horror role-playing games that really works.  Part of the reason is because it uses a Jenga tower, which gets ricketier as play goes on. In order to do almost anything, players have to make pulls from the tower, and when the tower falls, the player's character dies.  The tension created by the tower adds to the atmosphere of the game and creates a real sense of threat and impending doom that is hard to come by in similar games.

Issues with Dread on Hangouts

Dread would be an ideal game for late-night G+ Hangout play, except that there's only one way to play Jenga: in person, sitting around a table, with a bunch of able-bodied people. This doesn't work for all play groups!  The Dread book does suggest alternatives to Jenga, but they all have a similar physical component.

We'd like to find a solution that will work for people playing remotely, or for people who lack fine motor control.  Any alternative mechanic should fulfill at least the following requirements:

  1. It should use readily-available materials.
  2. It should build tension - the lethality should start near zero and ramp up over time.
  3. It should be obvious to all the players how "rickety" the tower is - how dangerous a "pull" will be for them - at any given time.
  4. It should kill players in about the same number of "pulls" - 35-55 according to the authors - that the Jenga tower in Dread does.

I believe I have a Hangouts-friendly alternative that meets all of the above requirements - I call it "D20 Dread".

D20 Dread

D20 Dread only requires two items: a 20-sided die or die roller and a shared sheet of paper.  That's it - all you need!  Here's how it works:

  1. Write the numbers 1-20 in the left column of the document
  2. Every time a player would make a pull, they roll a d20.
  3. For each result, make a mark next to the number that was rolled.
  4. When the fifth mark is placed next to any number, the player who rolled that number dies, as if they had knocked over the Jenga tower.
  5. A player may elect to "knock over the tower" at any time, with the same rules as in the normal game.
  6. Any time the rules refer to resetting the tower, instead erase all the marks.

This system fulfills all the requirements set out above. DiceStream is always available in G+, and failing that, most gamers have a d20 lying around.  The only other object needed is a piece of paper, physical or digital, which can be provided by Google Docs on G+.  The tension also ramps up over time as the checks next to each number fill up.  As I'll show later, for the first twenty rolls or so, there will be almost no danger of death.  Once the number goes north of 30, however, the danger ramps up significantly.  And based on the number of rows with four check marks, it's pretty obvious to players exactly how dangerous a roll is going to be.

Continue reading Playing Dread over G+ Hangouts

Music Plug #6: Ticheli, Schuman

(That's "tih-KAY-lee" for those of you who don't grok Italian, by the way.)

Frank Ticheli is one of those composers that writes the sort of modern stuff that typically only gets played by academic ensembles.  As expected, he gives us lots of atmospherics, mixed measure, drifting tonality, purely rhythmic stuff, etc.  The thing is, while his compositions aren't ground-breaking, some of them are quite exceptional and deserve a wider audience than just the few tens of friends and family who can make it to the Krannert Center for a Thursday night Wind Symphony concert.

While Ticheli follows in the footsteps of the great 20th Century composers, William Schuman is one of those composers.  His works are very cool, very orchestral (even when written for wind band) and a pain in the ass to read, as they're written without key signatures and with rehearsal numbers ever 5 or 10 measures instead of at natural phrase breaks.  Some things I'm glad we've left behind...

This edition of Plugs is a bit of a cop-out since I've recently played two of these pieces, but they're also two of the better wind ensemble compositions from the respective composers.

Continue reading Music Plug #6: Ticheli, Schuman