Thursday, June 22nd, 2017 01:25 pm

Hi: I'm back. And a regular commenter asked me an interesting question anent the state of current US/UK politics: how much money can you make by crying fire in a crowded theatre?

Note that "crowded theatre" and "crying fire" are not to be taken literally; rather, it's a question about how much money you can make by manipulating social media to drive public opinion.

I'm going to start with the money markets: hedge funds bet big on Brexit, because they predicted that in event of a "leave" vote going through, shares in the FTSE 100 would underperform by 20%: so they shorted the entire market. However, it's a bet that, by and large, they lost money on. Rather than the FTSE 100 dropping 20%, Sterling dropped 20% and the shares continued to trade at much the same level (in the now-debased currency). Oops. Notably, billionaire Peter Hargreaves, who donated £3.2M to the Leave campaign, managed to lose on the order of £400M (warning: DM over-simplification alert—the market didn't tank, his portfolio lost value). Still, as bets go, it's a good if obvious example of crying fire in a crowded theatre for pleasure and profit: put £3.2M into sending 15 million letters to voters urging them to vote one way, aiming to profit to the tune of hundreds of millions.

Another fairly obvious example is the investment by the current Russian leadership in cyberwar ops against the perceived-as-more-competent candidate in the last US presidential election. Regardless of her other characteristics, Clinton was experienced in foreign affairs and no friend of Russia's. Russia today is primarily an oil and gas exporter, with the world's second largest (official) reserves after Saudi Arabia, and the current leadership can't help but be aware that they're vulnerable to some of the same factors that brought down the USSR —notably vulnerability to externally induced commodity price fluctuations. Clinton could have continued the transition to renewables that the Obama administration began, and applied the decreased US dependency on fossil fuel as an economic weapon against Russia (by depressing global oil prices): she had to be defeated at all costs. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is full of fossil fuel connections. Oil, gas, and coal companies contributed heavily to Trump's campaign, to his inauguration, and in federal lobbying since then, with predictable results.

Anyway, those are the two big recent examples; investors pushing Brexit propaganda not because they think leaving the EU would be good for the UK but in the pursuit of short-term profit: and big fossil fuel interests (national-level actors like Russia/Gazprom and corporate actors like Koch Industries) seeking a fossil-fuel-friendly policy environment by buying targeted political campaigning and deploying cyberwar techniques against politicians perceived as being less receptive to their desire for profit.

Aside from these two examples, and also leaving aside the Grenfell Tower disaster (latest: inflammable cladding may have been used on up to 600 other high-rise apartment buildings in the UK; replacing that is going to cost billions), what other examples can you think of where you can profit by crying fire in a crowded theatre?

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017 05:00 am

Star cluster Westerlund 1 is home to some of the largest and most massive stars known. Star cluster Westerlund 1 is home to some of the largest and most massive stars known.

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017 02:39 pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
Click on the title below to read the comic
title: "Reader Reviews" - originally published 6/19/2017

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Monday, June 19th, 2017 11:21 pm
Pendragon is the classic Arthurian RPG, never bettered in its handling of Arthurian myth so far as I know. This time there are two bundle offers, one a repeat from 2014, the other all new.

King Arthur Pendragon

"This is a revival (the second) of our June 2014 offer featuring one of the most honored and respected RPGs ever published, King Arthur Pendragon. This revival runs in parallel with an all-new companion, Estates and Uther, that presents recent KAP supplements.

King Arthur Pendragon is the crowning achievement of legendary designer Greg Stafford (founder of Chaosium and discoverer of Glorantha), Pendragon isn't just a game about Arthurian Britain -- it is a painstakingly researched, amazingly detailed game with mechanics built specifically to support play as one of the noble, passionate, and ultimately tragic Knights of the Round Table. In the comprehensive Game Index of over 19,200 tabletop RPGs, King Arthur Pendragon ranks #5. Pendragon is a rarity in the roleplaying world, a work of authentic scholarship.

Chaosium first published Pendragon in 1985. Since then, it has remained continuously in print through several revisions and several publishers, most recently Nocturnal Media, co-founded in 2010 by White Wolf co-founder Stewart Wieck. This revival of the original June 2014 offer (the second revival, following one in December 2014) presents Nocturnal's current, comprehensive "Edition 5.2" rulebook (2016). This is an update from both the original run and the first revival, which presented the 5.1 version. Through Nocturnal Media's generosity, all previous purchasers also receive this new Edition 5.2 on their Wizard's Cabinet download page.

We provide each ebook complete in .PDF (Portable Document Format). Like all Bundle of Holding titles, these books have NO DRM (Digital Restrictions Management), and our customers are entitled to move them freely among all their ereaders.

Ten percent of each purchase (after gateway fees) goes to this offer's designated charity, the RPG Creators Relief Fund.

The total retail value of the titles in this offer at launch is US$132. Customers who pay just US$12.95 get all six titles in our Starter Collection (retail value $60) as DRM-free .PDF ebooks:

  • King Arthur Pendragon (retail price $20): The most current (Edition 5.2) version of the clasic core rules for playing knights in Britain.
  • Book of Knights & Ladies (retail $20): Create characters from 100 different places in Britain or ten foreign lands, and from a dozen religions.
  • Tales of Chivalry & Romance (retail $6): Five short adventures about the knightly code of chivalry and the high art of romance.
  • Tales of Magic & Miracles (retail $6): Adventures in fantastic and holy realms, including a prelude to the Grail Quest.
  • The Grey Knight (retail $3): This 1986 adventure inspired by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by Masks of Nyarlathotep designer Larry DiTillio.
  • Book of Records Volume 1 - Knights (retail $5): Form-fillable, auto-calculating .PDF character and estate sheets.

Those who pay more than the threshold (average) price, which is set at $22.95 to start, also get our entire Bonus Collection with four more titles worth an additional $72:

  • The Great Pendragon Campaign (retail $25): Greg Stafford's multi-generation saga with over 100 adventures across 85 years, stretching from before Arthur is conceived to beyond his death.
  • Book of Battle Second Edition (retail $25): These rules for large-scale combat let your knight stride into battle and turn the tide for better -- or worse.
  • Book of Armies (retail $20): All the armies in The Great Pendragon Campaign and many more, plus the battles important in the legends, such as Badon and Camlann.
  • Pendragon Gamemaster Characters (retail $2): Stats for all the important characters from The Great Pendragon Campaign and more.

Estates and Uther

"This Pendragon Bundle +2, subtitled Estates and Uther, is an all-new companion to our June 2014 King Arthur Pendragon Bundle, resurrected and running in parallel with this new offer. This offer includes supplements that focus on the Early Phase of Pendragon's 85-year "Great Campaign," especially the tumultuous history of King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon.

We provide each ebook complete in .PDF (Portable Document Format). Like all Bundle of Holding titles, these books have NO DRM (Digital Restrictions Management), and our customers are entitled to move them freely among all their ereaders.

Ten percent of each purchase (after gateway fees) goes to this offer's designated charity, the RPG Creators Relief Fund.

The total retail value of the titles in this offer is US$103. Customers who pay just US$12.95 get both titles in our Starter Collection (retail value $51) as DRM-free .PDF ebooks: Book of Uther (retail price $26), about King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, and his tumultuous history; and Book of the Estate (retail $25), about obtaining and managing a large household -- a monument to your glorious achievements.

Those who pay more than the threshold (average) price, which is set at $23.95 to start, also get our entire Bonus Collection with three more titles worth an additional $52:

  • Book of the Warlord (retail $32): The definitive guide to noble life in the chaotic Early Phase of the 85-year Great Pendragon Campaign.
  • Book of the Entourage (retail $15): The 2015 revised edition about the companions and accoutrements of the knight's lordly life.
  • Book of Records II: Battles (retail $5): Form-fillable, auto-calculating .PDF sheets for determining battle outcomes.
Pendragon resources
If you're interested in RPGs and Arthurian myth this is a game you really ought to have - whether you need all of it is another matter. It's possible to get too bogged down in the detail presented here, much of which can be found on other sources, and with a more diverse viewpoint. For my part, I own some of this material in early dead tree editions, but have rarely played anything that needed more than the main rulebook. It looks like there has been a lot of updating, and I expect I'll be checking most of this out, especially the newer material. But as usual I have to point out that I get this stuff free if I want it, and your mileage may vary!
Sunday, June 18th, 2017 09:56 pm
I haven't posted about the Grenfell Tower fire because there really isn't anything I can say about it that hasn't been said by dozens of others. I live about a mile and a half away, and fortunately I don't appear to know anyone who lived there (though I'll be surprised if none of the residents attended the school where I used to work), but it was a tragedy that will affect this area for a long time to come. So far I've only seen it from a distance, while in Portobello Road on Friday, and it looks horrible even at that range.

The Red Cross is coordinating donations for a relief fund - this is a direct donation to the charity which can take PayPal etc., and is set up to boost donations by adding Gift Aid if you're a UK taxpayer:

There are numerous petitions on line about reforms to the fire codes for tower blocks etc. - they all want much the same thing, and i have no idea which is getting the most signatures. Anyone know?
Sunday, June 18th, 2017 04:02 am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
Click on the title below to read the comic
title: "Perfect" - originally published 6/16/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Friday, June 16th, 2017 06:39 pm
posted by Neil Gaiman
I read James' Vance's work before I met the man. He was a playwright who had discovered comics and  wrote a graphic novel called KINGS IN DISGUISE, set in the great depression. I loved it. Powerful, moving and smart. Years later, when I was creating a line of comics for Tekno Comics, I asked James to write "Mr Hero", because I suspected that someone who could go so deep could also do funny and light and sweet, and he could. We became friends.

James met another friend of mine, who was writing Tekno Comics: Kate Worley. They fell in love, they had two children together.

Then Kate got cancer. I posted their appeal 13 years ago. (This is a beautiful letter from Jim to this blog in 2005, asking people to stop sending money, following Kate's death. It gives you the measure of the man.)

Jim died of cancer on June the 5th, leaving a wife and three children (two Autistic, one with Chronic Fatigue  Immune Disfunction).

Here's his obituary in the Tulsa World.

Go and read all about Jim and Kate and their lives and children at If you're someone who was touched by their work, or by their friendship, please donate, even if it's a few dollars.  I did.

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Thursday, June 15th, 2017 11:10 am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
Click on the title below to read the comic
title: "Modern Romance" - originally published 6/14/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017 11:20 pm
...when you read a newspaper story about a kid who has just been fitted with a 3D printed artificial arm and your first thought is that she'd be an awesome Bucky Barnes cosplayer in a few years.
Tuesday, June 13th, 2017 08:16 pm
This is a bit of a blast from the past - 1993's Cyberpunk 2020 RPG from R. Talsorian Games, visualising the far distant world of... um... three years in our future. This is another that I already own in dead tree format. It's notable for a series of entertainingly wrong guesses about the future it described, with the occasional bit that comes close to accuracy. As with some of the other offerings in these bundles, the pages are graphics scans of the original books so not perfect quality, but usable enough for most purposes:

This offer presents the 1993 Second Edition of Mike Pondsmith's classic RPG of the dark future, Cyberpunk 2020 from R. Talsorian Games.

As the back cover of Cyberpunk 2020 tells us, "the Corporations control the world from their skyscraper fortresses, enforcing their rule with armies of cyborg assassins. On the Street, boostergangs roam a shattered urban wilderness, killing and looting. The rest of the world is a perpetual party, as fashion-model techies in the hottest clubs rub biosculpt jobs with battle-armored roadwarriors. The future never looked so bad -- but you can change it. You've got interface plugs in your wrists, weapons in your arms, lasers in your eyes, biochips in your brain. You're wired in, cyberenhanced, and solid state. Take it to the fatal Edge where only the toughest and coolest can go -- because you're Cyberpunk."

This huge collection provides DRM-free, non-watermarked .PDFs of the complete 258-page Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook and over a dozen supplements for both First and Second Editions -- everything you need for a life on the fatal Edge where attitude is everything. Warm up your cyberwear and faxprinter, grab your mirrorshades and Dai Lung Magnum, tell the ripperdoc to stand by, and hit Night City's mean streets and hot clubs in the unimaginably faraway time of AD 2020.

These are acceptable-quality .PDF image scans of the original 1990s hardcopies with OCR (optical character recognition) applied. Text is light but readable and can be copied.

Ten percent of each purchase (after gateway fees) goes to this offer's designated charity, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The total retail value of the titles in this offer at launch is US$113.50. Customers who pay just US$14.95 get all six titles in our Player's Collection (retail value $48) as DRM-free .PDF ebooks:

  • Cyberpunk Second Edition (retail $15): The core rulebook for this quintessentially '90s RPG of high-tech lowlifes.
  • Four role guides (total retail $27) adding options for individual character classes: Solo of Fortune (mercenaries), Protect & Serve (law enforcement), Wild Side (fixers), and Rockerboy (rock'n'roll will never die!).
  • Blackhand's Street Weapons 2020 (retail $6): The big book of guns and every kind of armament.

Those who pay more than the threshold (average) price, which is set at $24.95 to start, also get our entire Referee's Collection with seven more titles worth an additional $65.50:

  • Night City (retail $9): One of the best city sourcebooks for Cyberpunk or any modern-day RPG, this jam-packed 180-page sourcebook covers Cyberpunk's signature urban sprawl.
  • Three 2020 worldbooks (total retail $23) looking at life on the edge outside the US: Pacific Rim Sourcebook, Eurosource Plus, and Rough Guide to the UK.
  • Rache Bartmoss's Guide to the Net (retail $9): Rache Bartmoss (the world's greatest netrunner) is dead -- which finally gives him time to write this acidulous, gonzo-journalist tour of the information superhighway.
  • Land of the Free and Home of the Brave (total retail $20.50): Two linked supplements on fallen America. Home of the Brave covers NPCs, plot hooks, and more from this fractured union. Land of the Free presents a sprawling road-trip campaign.
  • Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads! (retail $7): The unexpurgated Cyberpunk referee's guide with some of the best GM advice for this or any RPG.

At least one more title will be added later: "When a title is added after launch, ALL customers who previously purchased the bundle automatically receive the newly added title, REGARDLESS of whether or not they paid more than average. This is their reward for buying early."

Cyberpunk 2020 resources

I'm not sure about this one - it's well out of date, Cyberpunk in general is a fairly marginal genre these days, you have to think of it as an alternate world because most of the history it describes went wildly differently, and the rules set is a little clunky. If you're starting from scratch and want a modern cyberpunk system GURPS is probably a better bet, since new material occasionally appears and there are endless resources - but I'd suggest going with GURPS Cyberpunk plus Transhuman Space, which adds a lot more fun things for a cyberpunk-style setting. On the other hand, there's some fun stuff here, and it handles the actual business of hacking etc. about as well as GURPS.

If you can find them there were also some fun supplements based on classic cyberpunk novels; Hardwired, based on the novel by Walter John Williams, and another based on Effinger's When Gravity Fails. Neither is included in this bundle, but so far as I know this is the only system that covers them.

On the whole I think I'd give this an "OK if you like that sort of thing" rating; it's the only way you're probably going to get this stuff now, but do you really need it? Possibly worth it if you don't have much and want to see more, and get in early before the prices rise.

As usual your mileage won't be mine!