Friday, May 30, 2014


I once had a student tell me she hates Dr. Pepper and loves Justin Bieber. My reply: "How do you even have a boyfriend when you are so unworthy of love?!"

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Favorite Fandom Moment

At Comicpalooza 2014, Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno crashed the Agents of SHIELD panel. This is probably one of my favorite things to happen in a panel ever. I'm fortunate I got it on video!

I love the reactions of the actors and actresses as they pull out their cell phones to get a shot of Stan Lee - they treat him like we treat them! A very spontaneous and amazing moment. The energy of the crowd was electrifying.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Managing a Dance Troupe

Me: "So what do you do?"

Her: "I manage this dance troop."

Me: "I imagine that's a lot of work. What kind of things do you need to do?"

Her: pats me on the shoulder "More than you can imagine. Hormone driven guys who get hurt and hurt themselves."

Me: "I'm a high school teacher."

Her: "...Oh!"

Printing Steampunk

A convention panel idea for anyone who wants to run with it: "3D Printing and Steampunk."

3D printers are now priced at the consumer level, making them readily available to everyone who can afford a PC. Since steampunk is something of an affluent hobby, its participants are more than able to purchase such a device for their personal use.

Some discussion questions you can touch on:
  1. What are the implications of being able to produce all sorts of fancy doodads and decorations with a 3D printer for something as accessory intensive as steampunk designs?
  2. Given steampunk's focus on hand-crafting, what do you expect to see as the adoption rate within the community?
  3. What kind of support community might grow around this use? 
  4. What special kinds of plastic spools might be developed for steampunk use?
  5. Will this influence steampunk's appeal to the general populace?
  6. How might 3D printing splinter the steampunk scene? What will be reactions for and against?
I can see this being a good fit at a science fiction, steampunk, or general fandom convention.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Recursive Inigo Montoya's

Name a character: "Hello. My Name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." It'd be funny since his name isn't Inigo Montoya. In fact, to make the sentence true, you'd have to replace "Inigo Montoya" with the phrase "Hello. My Name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." This makes it:

"Hello. My Name is
"Hello. My Name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
You killed my father. Prepare to die."

However, the new phrase is still incorrect, so you have to insert it again:

"Hello. My Name is
"Hello. My Name is
"Hello. My Name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
You killed my father. Prepare to die."
You killed my father. Prepare to die."

But that still isn't right! Eventually it becomes a long series of "Hello. My name is" over and over again for infinity, followed by an infinitely long string of "You killed my father. Prepare to die." But you never get to hear that part.

Friday, May 23, 2014


Student 1: "Where do babies come from?"

Student 2: "Amazon. And free 2-day shipping when you use Prime!"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Art and Artist

When it comes to artists and art, I have taught my students to separate the two. A frequent example I cite is Richard Wagner. His music is some of the best classical work ever composed. The Ring Cycle is a 19th century epic, easily one of the greatest operas ever made.

But the man? An anti-Semitic sociopath who loved to run up debts and sleep with other men's wives. You can despise the creator but love the creation. (And vice versa.)

I need to watch Stephen Fry's take on his love of Wagner's music.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Steampunk Math Geeks

Steampunk is growing in popularity right now. However, there are far too few steampunk fans who also play table-top RPG's. There are also too few steampunk fans who are simultaneously math geeks. This needs to be fixed. After all, the development of modern logical math is one of the key themes of steampunk.

Bertrand Russell, Georg Cantor, Alfred Whitehead, Henri Poincare, Gottlob Frege - these are all figures of history who bucked prior trends to blaze new trails in math. The philosophical debate of Poincare and Frege came to fist fights in bars, as mathematicians hotly contested the way to view not just numbers but the entire field itself. It was a period of intense mental energy and coupled with the sensation that, ultimately, everything was knowable through the power of math (and by extension, science).

It doesn't get more classically steampunk than that.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Behavioral Cycle

A behavioral cycle we can probably all relate to:

1. Meet person, have misgivings about their intentions/behavior.

2. Be assured by others that said misgivings are without cause.

3. Decide to disregard misgivings and be less cautious.

4. Ingratiation happens, attachments are made.

5. Person ends up behaving exactly like misgivings indicated. Pain results.

6. Promise to have a better filter and more caution next time.

7. Time passes and Step 6 is forgotten.

8. Go to Step 1.

When your first instinct is to be wary of someone and not to let them in too close, listen. That's probably the right way to go. Have the strength to keep some people at arm's length, because there are people you should not try to bring any closer than that.


"The Steampunk Parable:" a Tephra one-shot done in the style of the Stanley Parable. No idea how to make this work, but I want to try it anyway.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review: "Mystic China"

This is the first review of the research material I've been reading while I work on Daizhong for Tephra. One of my main tasks was finding how China and Chinese culture has already been presented in table-top games so I could find a way to both a) do a faithful steampunk interpretation and b) avoid retreading too much of the same ground as other publishers.

Title: Mystic China
Year: 1995
Author: Erick Wujcik
Publisher: Palladium Books


The book is a follow-up to Ninjas & Superspies, supplying additional info on Chinese and East Asian culture. It's primary goal is to expand the rules on martial arts, magic, and other features. At 208 pages, it has NPC's, new rules, and setting notes to expand the Ninjas world.


The source game, Ninjas, is one of action and martial arts adventure. So it's no surprise that Mystic China follows in this theme. As a result, it chooses mainly to focus on Chinese culture relevant to action rather than historical exploration. Despite the limited scope, there's a lot to like about this book.

One, they differentiate between Japan and China. "East Asia" tends to get lumped together in one big soup, so seeing them separated here was refreshing. The differences they cite are correct. The narrator tips on how much Chinese language to use during dialogue is very helpful to GM's. "A little goes a long way" is good advice.

There's a handy glossary of terms that can be useful in character naming as well as a longer general vocabulary list people can use to mix in. I liked the information provided on times, astrology, and five element theory. These little facts were both correct and helpful to someone who wanted to setup a Chinese atmosphere, by giving them basically a crash course on Chinese culture. Many of the enemies and types of opponents used in the book (such as many kinds of immortals) are based firmly in Chinese mythology.

One of the best aspects of the book was the section on Chinese alchemy. Wujcik very clearly did his homework for this piece, as he captures the goals and techniques of Chinese alchemists very well. The quest for the immortality elixir - and, indeed, a general theme of immortality in the book - are very well presented. It's one of the few examples of Chinese science being presented well in a game I have found to date.

There are a few flaws. The exaggerated humility Wujcik recommends for monks was a bit off. His depiction of a Taoist is also inaccurate, leaning more toward the western concept of one than actual Taoist behavior. The available classes are also highly stereotypical: there's a large section of martial artists and masters, with two exceptions (an antiques dealer and a businessman). Scholars, bureaucrats, and other Chinese archetypes are not present. This could be attributed to the theme of the game, however.

While the list of traditional Chinese weapons was nicely detailed, a major oversight is the general lack of Chinese science present. Alchemy gets a very good representation - but that's it. Even in the wuxia movies this game aspires to replicate, demon hunting technology is commonly featured and invented. While Wujcik did more research than others, he still barely scratched the surface.


Mystic China does a good job of what it sets out to do: create a world of "mysterious magical China" for players to explore. There is nothing wrong with wanting to play a game based on the wuxia genre and this book captures it well. I only wish Wujcik had written games set in China that explored other possible genres, so there could be more contrast.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Joking by Text

When communicating by text-based medium and you want to convey that you're not being serious, I find evil laughter to be the best signal. "Muah ha ha ha!" is a pretty widely recognized sign of, "I'm kidding!"

Monday, May 12, 2014


That policy proposed by that national political figure is causing some indeterminate hardship to a nebulously defined subset of people! I have some sort of emotion about this that I am unable to state in definite form, but will defend it vigorously because this arbitrary authority figure with a degree in in a field has taken a stance on this issue that I have gleaned by reading second-hand summaries of his work.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Modern Art and the Modern Soul

Art is a reflection of society's mental condition. You can gauge, with caveats, the overall attitude and outlook of an age by the art it produces and values. The dadaists of the post-World War 1 era, for example, were a response to what they saw as the primary cause of the war: the over-attachment to rationality. So they sought to counter that with deliberate paradox and irrationality.

Romanticism came about to elevate reason, exploration, and, as Walter Donway said, "to glorify man as a being of self-made soul." This was during the age when science was becoming primary to society's existence and when all mysteries looked conquerable before the engine of logic. Romanticism thus reflected the sense of agency and will of its age.

A full analysis of art in a given age would fill a space much longer than a readable blog post would allow. a general picture is possible by focusing on a few key popular franchises, which is what I'll do here. Just understand the intent is not to be comprehensive, just to explore the concept of what our art says about our modern culture.

Two popular series: Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. Both are related: 50 Shades started as a fanfic of Twilight. It can be said that while 50 Shades is, in terms of content, more adult than Twilight, the themes it explores and expresses are very much the same. Both are tied to selfless love, the idea that love is about giving oneself utterly to the partner and that is the key to happiness. They portray their female leads not as empowered figures determining their destiny, but as pawns to cosmic forces of romance that they need to accept.

"Selfless love" is a destructive concept. Love is the response to the ideals of the individual. It is a selfish act, one where a person desires the company of another. In trying to paint love as selfless, it condemns the impulse to reach out and choose who someone loves as "greedy." Instead, it paints love as something that just "happens" per mystic forces that no one has control over. The concept of selfless love is a throwback to the anti-intellectualism of decades prior when the negation of love was critical to making people accept control from those above them. No doubt this is what influenced both authors, at least subconsciously, in how they chose to portray the way love operates.

The audience reflects this: they consist largely of young teen girls (for Twilight) or older women (for 50 Shades), people for whom love is either an unknown they are attempting to discover or, arguably, something they have never felt. The popularity of these novels reflects the distortion of love in our times, the confusion sown by a media that conflates physical sex with love and falsely portrays momentary hook-ups as being just as emotionally fulfilling as long term relationships.

Standing in stark contrast to this: the Hunger Games and Divergent. Both of these series are diametrically opposed to the passive themes of Twilight and 50 Shades. Their protagonists possess will and agency. They decide and act in their own interests, based on their own values and even if the larger society opposes their wishes. For Katniss, she acts to defy the games and eventually becomes a symbol of rebellion. Tris strikes back against pre-determined destiny by breaking free of the house system she was trapped in.

Between Katniss and Tris, Tris is clearly the stronger of the two. She chooses her partner, Four, because of how he represents her ideals. He is strong, confident, capable. He is not without weaknesses and nightmares, but he overcomes rather than wallowing in them. Katniss also chooses her lover, Peeta, though the reasoning there is muddier. Katniss also suffers in the third book when she allows herself to be used as a tool by others. The tragedy that results from that is a reminder never to surrender one's direction to others.

The popularity of Katniss and Tris with readers shows a clear contrast to Bella and Ana. They speak to a desire for heroines who control their fate and who act with a clear head and mind. Their popularity shows that popular interest in rational and intellectual characters remains. Even better, they attracted a large teenage audience of readers. The key will be: will these readers be convinced to discard their love of strong heroines in favor of the weak and passive, as a mark of false maturity? Or will they grow older and demand more works along these lines? Works that are, fundamentally, aligned toward Romanticism.

Friday, May 9, 2014


My students have a nickname for me: "The Math Gangsta." My gang sign? Greater than and less than symbols with my fingers.

Algebra 2, REPRESENT, yo.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I Was a Superhero Once

By: Stephen Kelly, Intrepid Illustrations
The idea of a living computer symbiotic lab coat is pretty awesome.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Find a job that allows you to fully apply yourself. Don't stay where your talents aren't tested, improved, or stretched. If those in charge want to put you in a box that limits your growth, move on. Find people who know what to make of you, and even better, what to make of your future self, and who can guide you to a fuller realization.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: Amazing Spider-Man 2

(This review is spoiler free.)

Spider-Man has long been my favorite comic book character. Mainly because I identify with him. Nerdy kid who was picked on a lot in high school? Yep. I like to think I'd do better things if I had powers at first, but how he reacted could very well have been me at that age.

I started reading Spider-Man in the early 90's, just as the Clone Saga hit (unfortunately). I did my homework, though, and invested in a lot of back issues, so I'm very familiar with Spider-Man stories from the late 70's and 80's. There was also the Spider-Man animated series on at the time that I enjoyed.

Like many long time fans, I stopped reading Spider-Man (or buying any Marvel at all, really) after One More Day. While I've peeked into Superior Spider-Man, One More Day continues to sour me to the comics, sadly. I do, however, like to consume related media, such as the movies.

I got to see Amazing Spider-Man on its Thursday IMAX premiere. Nabbed the free poster that came with it (very nifty). At over 2 and a half hours, it's a hefty feature and needed every minute given how much they packed in.

Overall impression? Definitely better than Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3, but it sadly fails to topple either Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2. (I consider Spider-Man 2 as the best Spider-Man movie made to date, so you know how I rank them.) The film was not insanely horrible, as some have described, and even makes the cut as an okay movie. It's far from the quality Spider-Man deserves, though.

The Good:

The special effects are amazing. Seeing it in IMAX is very much worth it. Both fights with Electro are beautiful and the use of dubstep timing was a great trick. This isn't the yellow-green kind of pathetic Electro from his early years - this is the God-Tier Electro that several writers realized was his true potential as a villain.

Spider-Man moves like Spider-Man better than ever before. The way he dodges, jumps, and little tricks he does with his webbing are some of the best that's been brought to the screen. You can believe he was bitten by a radioactive spider.

The one-liners are snappy and well delivered. They got Spider-Man's humor down very well in this film and Andrew Garfield delivers them with the light-hearted tone they deserve.

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and Jamie Foxx as Electro. Both did very good jobs with the characters. Jamie Foxx in particular captures the awkwardness of Max Dillon before his transformation very well.

What Needs to be Improved:

Sally Field as Aunt May just doesn't work. She can't pull off the emotional gravity needed for some of the tragedy in the character. It really killed several scenes between her and Peter that should have been touching.

Andrew Garfield can't quite figure out how to be Peter Parker. He alternates between an "Aw, shucks" kind of personality that works well and a more outgoing joking character that doesn't. He doesn't remain consistent to how he presents Parker and it makes it a bit jarring when he changes modes.

They turned Dr. Kafka into a guy. Worse, he's played pretty horribly. I did not enjoy this change to a character I enjoyed reading about in the comics.

Gwen and Peter's relationship. They break up at the beginning of the movie (not a spoiler). That really kills a lot of emotional potential right there. Instead of seeing them grow closer and building on the relationship from the first, we go through a rehash of what we had in ASM1. Much better would have been if they'd stayed together and Gwen taken a more active role in helping Peter fight bad guys. There's a glimmer of this later in the film and I wish there was more of this. It would have made everything play out much better than how it went, with the character simply seeming to be in a predetermined fate.

Pacing and story focus. Like the first one, ASM2 skips over motivations and depth to get to the action. As a result, Max Dillon and Harry Osborn get very short scenes to establish motivations before BLAM they're evil! Spider-Man 2 set the bar for creating sympathetic villains by focusing on them before the circumstances of their creation. ASM2 uses a paint by numbers, "Okay, we've got a scene establishing this guy is a lonely loser. Next!"

And that brings to the final point: despite being over 2 and a half hours, the movie still feels too SHORT. A lot of time has been spent telling not very much story. It never lets things sink in or builds on the potential elements there, it just moves from piece to piece. Spider-Man 2, like the Avengers, let things breath so the audience could grasp what they were seeing. ASM2 just shoves you along a railway path, demanding your attention before you can comprehend what you've seen. It's not the only film to do this, of course, but it's not good film making.

I hope Amazing Spider-Man 3 is an improvement, but this reboot has a long way to go before it gets to Raimi's level or that of the MCU.

Friday, May 2, 2014


"Mr. Baird, you're wearing blue today. You must be in the Crips."

My students are under the impression that my squeaky clean demeanor masks some kind of tragic tortured life as a gangster.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Game Systems 1: Games as a Formal System

It is said that discussing the familiar in unfamiliar terms opens up new avenues for thought and creativity. That is my goal here. By approaching games, especially RPG’s, the same way one would a theorem or scientific principle, my hope is to inspire others to rethink of their perception and conception of games themselves. It might prompt people to develop in ways they never thought of before and to explore new mechanics they discovered by codifying what just came intuitively for them.

I’ll start with something very general, but also very vital: formal systems. Formal systems have three major components (and I am borrowing heavily from Douglas Hofstadter for these terms):

  1. Axioms
  2. Typographic decision procedures
  3. Theorems

Math is the most well known formal system. Geometry, for example, consists of Euclid’s famous axioms (with non-Euclidean Geometry altering one of them), a system for deriving proofs based on those axioms, and the theorems that follow from those axioms.

Games are also a formal system. We tend not to think about them as such, preferring to view them as crafts or works of art. And there is indeed a strong element of art to games, from the ideas present and the execution of their delivery. But in starkest terms, games operate on the same principles as math, language, and other systems, albeit at a less abstract level than fundamental elements. By realizing this, it can be possible to define and formalize a number of otherwise elusive terms we use in gaming, such as immersion and elegance.

In a game, the axioms are the materials required to play. The decision procedures are the rules of the game, outlining how the axioms can be utilized. The theorems are then the valid moves that can take place within the game. For example, in chess, the axioms are the board, the pieces, and the two players. The decision procedures are the way the pieces move, removal of pieces, win conditions, etc. The theorems are the set of valid moves a player can make on their turn, such as castling or getting out of check.

A trait of formal systems is the occurrence of isomorphism. Essentially, when the mind is confronted with a set of highly abstract concepts, such as the symbolic language of the 1900’s logicians, we will assign meaning to the patterns. Often these meanings will be drawn from personal experience and knowledge and used as a way to grant additional meaning to the patterns we see. For example, when school children are taught addition with the plus sign, they are prompted to think of the physical act of combining two separate piles of things into one pile. This creates an isomorphism: when you see the abstract symbol, +, think of two piles being combined.

This has the benefit of allowing us to understand something very abstract and foreign, by couching it in the familiar. However, the problem with isomorphism is that we will want to assume the system behaves like the thing we associate it with. This can cause issues in math, where not everything behaves as in the real world. For example, if you add the set of all the composite numbers and the set of all the prime numbers together, your isomorphism idea of two piles tells you that the resulting set is larger. This is false. Since there are an infinite number of elements in the two sets, the resulting set is also infinite - and the same size. (This isomorphism confounded mathematicians and philosophers for thousands of years until Georg Cantor.)

While isomorphisms might be undesirable for formal systems - Bertrand Russell certainly thought so - games distinguish themselves in that they deliberately seek to induce isomorphisms!

Think of Dungeons and Dragons. Players roll dice and assemble numbers on a piece of paper, deriving statistics and numbers. What is written down is highly abstract, the result of navigating a long series of complex rules. However, in the end, the game asks the player not to see the numbers on the paper - but a person, a character. A sentient being whose behavior they control and whose capabilities are defined by the numbers, but whose actions are their choice.

There are games that lack this appeal to isomorphism, of course. Many of the card games, such as Poker, or board games, such as Chess and Checkers, or even many sports, such as baseball and soccer. These seek to stand on their own merits, rather than insert an appeal to our imaginations. This does not make them any less of a game, it just makes their intended hook different. 

The games of key interest here are those that do rely on isomorphism. These games want players to take their decision rules and the resulting theorems and translate them into other terms. When Tephra asks a player to roll strike using their d12, it is asking the player to imagine that the use of the axioms (the d12, themselves) and the theorem (the valid move) they created with the decision rule (how tiers of strike work) not as abstract numerical constructs but as a character swinging a melee weapon at another, ready to deal damage and defend themselves. This is a complex arrangement and understanding how it works is a major step in game design itself.

Next, let’s explore the concept of isomorphism further in relation to the typographical decision rules a game chooses to have and see how that leads us to a concept of immersion.