Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sympathetic Telegraph

In reading The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, by Daniel J. Boorstin, I came across a reference to a fascinating historical character.

Giambattista della Porta was a true Renaissance man of Italy; he was a polymath and wrote intelligently on dozens of subjects. Most noteworthy is his Magica Naturalis, or Natural Magic, which appears to have been banned, then unbanned, by the Inquisition. The book was as much about what was understood in that time as "science," but also bristles with pseudo-occult matters.

I've not read it, just an abstract of its contents. One thing that I found fascinating was the so-called "sympathetic telegraph." I'll let Wikipedia explain it:

"In the book, Porta also mentioned an imaginary device known as a sympathetic telegraph. The device consisted of two circular boxes, similar to compasses, each with a magnetic needle, supposed to be magnetized by the same lodestone.
Each box was to be labeled with the 26 letters, instead of the usual directions. Porta assumed that this would coordinate the needles such that when a letter was dialed in one box, the needle in the other box would swing to point to the same letter, thereby helping in communicating."

No information on whether he ever actually built this, and, surprise, later researchers confirmed this does not work. But it's a great idea for some form of long-range communication device in a fantastic fictional setting.

Another interesting bit about Porta was his genius in cryptography. He invented a method of writing secret messages on the insides of eggs. Again, from Wikipedia:

"During the Spanish Inquisition, some of his friends were imprisoned. At the gate of the prison, everything was checked except for eggs. Della Porta wrote messages on the egg shell using a mixture made of plant pigments and alum. The ink penetrated the egg shell which is semi-porous. When the egg shell was dry, he boiled the egg in hot water and the ink on the outside of the egg was washed away. When the recipient in prison peeled off the shell, the message was revealed once again on the egg white."

Cool! I am glad I discovered this interesting fellow, and I am sure both the sympathetic telegraph and crypto-eggs will make its way into my Swords Against Satan game setting (weird fantasy in Elizabethan England).

Boorstin's book The Discoverers, by the way, is an incredible adventure. It tells of man's struggles and triumphs in discovering (and making) the world around him, ranging from astronomy, time, geography, nature, biology, printing and other things. If you enjoy the historical segments of, say, Cosmos, you'd enjoy Boorstin. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Game of Battery

In our gaming group's long-running (14 years!) Gonen's World campaign, we have invented snippets of detail about the setting that we've never fully fleshed out. For example, in my recorded "Blue Crystal" broadcasts, I had sportscaster Doofus Gandy occasionally mention a professional sport called Battery.

The other day, in a fit of inspiration, I lifted some of the basic rules from the old Hasbro game Battleball, ever-so-slightly complicated them, and revamped the positions and associated die types, passing rules, and made a few other changes. I figured our group could form a "league" and play Battery during the breaks between game sessions on our twice-monthly game days. Already, the group has latched on to the idea, with Ryan Ashmore providing some fictional background for the sport and most other players inventing teams (so far we've got the Highseat Triple-As, Galeg Kar Smokestacks, Saltwash Assault, and Blackpool United).

However, it's all moot without a prototype to actually play. So last Friday I blew off some Pharaoh Publishing business and made a board and playing pieces.

One problem instantly became apparent. Like Colin Campbell's Cape City character Skyscraper, the board is just "Too Fuckin' Big." So my original 36x48 board needs to shrink to 24x36. I could see that without even playtesting. Ryan's fictional backstory indicates the game is of urban origin, so, given that, a smaller board makes sense in the setting context as well as making for a faster-playing, more brutal game. I think the Battery pitch should be more like a basketball court than a football field. This is the original:

I won't bother to explain the rules here, other than to remark that I want to keep them as simple as possible - I see this as a fast-playing game more akin to Checkers than Chess. Nevertheless, the gaming group is busy examining the rules, riffing on 'em, and in general suggesting a lot of things that might make it more fun, or might complicate it beyond my original intentions. We'll see how it goes. But, for fun, if this league takes off, I will try to write some in-character sports stories about our exploits.

Friday, April 18, 2014

News From Cape City, 1930-Something.

Here's a player handout for a one-shot playtest of Supermanifesto I'm doing with the game group this weekend. I've done many Cape City Comets - it was great to go back in time on this one.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fliers of the Red Sun

Last night I didn't feel like doing any of the things I should have been doing, so I made these fliers for either of the upcoming adventures the party might choose in our old-school D&D game. These are in the style of handbills for a rock show, and I didn't pass them out anywhere obviously, but they were fun to make and I liked how they turned out. Thank Ray Harryhausen and The Upper Crust for visual inspiration.

Queen at Live Aid

I watched the Queen documentary Days of Our Lives, and learned many interesting new details about my favorite band. One thing that stuck with me was the story of their performance at Live Aid. By that time, many folks, especially music industry people, had sort of written Queen off. They hadn't had a hit song in four years, and had already pretty much "lost" America (and never really got it back until Freddie died). But they were persuaded to perform for 20 minutes at Live Aid. I'd seen the video of that performance before, but didn't quite understand the context. Apparently, Queen came out and totally stole this show. The way you see the audience moving in that video was during Queen's performance and no other time. I've watched a few other Live Aid performances, and no one worked this crowd the way Freddie did.

It was important show for the band. They'd all but given up and gone their separate ways. This show reinvigorated them. Not only did the band have a stadium full of people eating out of their hands, but all the other rock luminaries back stage stopped what they were doing and drifted to the wings to watch, well aware that Queen had just come out of nowhere, against all odds, to steal the show and prove that they are the champions. Queen managed to connect with audiences in a way few other bands ever have, and most of that was because of Freddie. As the documentary points out, he'd had experience working stadium-size stages before, and it shows in this video. But what made Freddie special was his ability to involve the audience. They weren't just watching the show, they were part of it.

The upcoming Freddie Mercury biopic will actually end with this triumphant Live Aid performance, and not his death, which is probably a good thing. This Live Aid performance was the band's, and certainly Freddie's, greatest triumph. It catapulted them back into the studio for three more albums before Freddie's death. And while they never had another huge hit in America, their subsequent singles topped the charts pretty much everywhere else.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Metal Machine Music

Having delved into experimental music of all sorts lately, it was inevitable that I'd have to tackle Lou Reed's infamous Metal Machine Music. It's a complete departure from anything you might think of as "sounding like Lou Reed." Instead, it is four album sides of high-intensity electronic warbling, screeching, droning, and beeping over multiple layers of distorted droning. Each side of the double-record set has 16 minutes of sound, but the last side is designed to play the last few seconds over and over, so the track listing says the length is "infinity." Reed called the record the ultimate conclusion of the heavy metal genre, but I doubt many would agree with him today. He was savaged in the musical press for it. Many considered it a joke, or a cynical way for him to fulfill one last album in a contract. To his dying day, however, Reed asserted it was a legitimate experiment. He was influenced by the drone music of The Theater of Eternal Music (the subject of a later post, I'm sure), and it shows here. At the time, it was pretty much universally hated by everyone but Lester Bangs (surprise, surprise), and it was pulled after only three weeks in rotation.

I think the album is "listenable," and it's a great canvass for frantic imaginings. In fact I played it twice through - no small feat, because sometimes the sounds on the record are very annoying. Yet once you've acclimated to it, you can hear subtextual rhythms, snippets of melody, and so on - all of which are probably either accidental or exist only in my mind. Nevertheless, after a period of aurally choking on this record, you may find that you slip into Reed's electronic trance. And it's the fact that my own mind sort of "completes" this music in my own way is one of the reasons I like it.

He claimed to have recorded it on a four-track in his apartment by tuning guitars strangely and laying them up against amplifiers run through various effects. The subsequent feedback, recorded and played back at varying rates of speed and layered multiple times, creates the music. In essence, listeners have noted, it's as if the instruments are playing themselves. At at time when I'm becoming interested in Brian Eno's experiments with generative music, this sits well with me.

I'm reminded of my late friend Ian Thomas's album Pure Agitator, released under the Vulture Club monicker on his Invisible Generation label shortly before his death. Pure Agitator is a much more streamlined, simplified, and artistically pure version of what Reed tried to do, and I'll give it a detailed look in another post.

If you're even remotely open-minded when it comes to music, you might want to give Metal Machine Music a listen and see if you can handle it. The whole thing, is, in fact, right here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Random Cool Stuff #5: Absinthe Posters

...I've been reading up on this after hearing about someone drinking it and being disappointed that they did not experience hallucinogenic effects. Apparently what is marketed as absinthe today is not the same drink that lubricated the artsy denizens of Paris in the early 20th century. Even then, there was nothing inherent in any ingredient that would have caused hallucinations. More likely, unscrupulous bottlers but various poisons in the drink to save steps on the colorization process. These could have caused hallucinations. Even more likely, reports of the mystical, mind-opening nature of the drink were embellished by the bohemians who drank it. Regardless, I found these old French posters advertising the drink to be quite interesting and beautiful. So here they are.