Flooding in Valhalla

I don’t really have a good story for this, but the title is so brilliant, I had to share it. It would be a great name for a book. Plus, it was overheard from a source I almost never watch: local news. Evidently there was a lot of rain north of Manhattan today.

Wasting money

With shockingly little consideration, I just spent an indefensible amount of money (over $100) on a single role-playing game supplement. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I’m now the proud owner of the world’s largest dungeon. Let me see if I can convey the size of this thing: there is a map measuring 17″ x 22″ with 114 rooms. This map is described by 45 pages of very small text. This is “part A”. The dungeon goes to “part O”, each with a similarly sized map and usually larger text section, all bound into an 840 page hardback book.

Initially, I was interested in the gimmick of it, kind of a “just to say I have it” sort of a purchase. Surprisingly, though, the whole thing is bound together by a fairly decent story. It’s also pretty well organized and is thought out to run a party from low to high levels. It’s good enough to make me want to run it (or, at least, in it), but at the rate I play, it would take a really long time. I could never, I thought to myself, “do it right”.

Then I got to thinking about what “doing it right” might entail. Since I was in an extravagant mood, why not really go for broke? I think I could do it right if I could throw away no more than $250,000.

The basic idea would be to rent a house for a month to six weeks somewhere remote, but still cool, like Turks and Caicos. A group of five to seven players and a DM would live in the house and game starting at noon every weekday, usually until late in the evening. This group would probably be recruited somehow, possibly over the net, then weeded down to an interview and so on. Players would be given:

  • Travel to and from the location
  • Lodging and food
  • $2500/week salary
  • A 12″ PowerBook to keep

The DM would receive a similar package, but would be paid $3500/week and given a 17″ PowerBook. A minivan or similar vehicle would be made available for the duration for the group.

The computers are crucial for two reasons. First, in exchange for the salary, the players and DM would each be expected to blog about the experience each day. They could do this in their own voice or in character. For best effect, the members of the group would not be permitted to see each other’s blogs (probably just by using the honor system but perhaps through firewall rules, though these can be dodged).

More importantly, all the machines would be networked to a LAN while playing. Some of this might require some custom software, but the basic idea would be that nearly all of the events of the game (like die rolls, awarding and spending experience, etc.) would be done with the laptops (rather than pen, paper and dice) and it would all be logged automatically. In particular:

  • All dice rolling would be handled by software. (If necessary, cheating could be avoided by hosting a dice server on the DMs machine.)
  • Players could send secret messages to the DM or other players.
  • Players could track all aspects of their characters (including expendable equipment like torches, which is more important in this dungeon than others).
  • The DM could get a summary view of all the characters and make changes to them that cascade to the player’s machines (things like reducing hit points or increasing experience).
  • The DM could send images to individual players or the whole group.

Audio of the sessions would be recorded (either by the DM’s machine or by another on site machine). Video might be taken, though it would probably need to be more of the “one image every few seconds” kind. Everything (including the logs) would be made available online, so anyone crazy enough could reconstruct it if they wanted. The group would be incommunicado with the internet (and vice versa) while in session.

Now I just need someone to fund it. Maybe I could pitch it to the Sci-Fi Network as a reality show.

How to destroy a modern record company

One of the reasons mainstream music has become significantly less interesting in the past decade has been the major label’s embrace of the superstar marketing model. In previous decades, studios expended effort in building “career artists”, bands that would build a fan base who would buy record after record. This has given way to a “pump and dump” strategy, where debut albums are marketed aggressively and milked for a brief period, then the artist is abandoned. Superstar marketing is the pinnacle of this business model, where a single star is massively marketed in every way possible, almost to exclusion of the label’s other acts.

This sells a lot of the superstar’s albums and makes tons of money for the label. For the superstar, there isn’t much evidence that this will lead to strong career. In an analysis of long term successful albums Chris Johnson observes that, in spite of making millions, there is…:

…considerable evidence to suggest that when Britney [Spears] stops being pushed on the market by her record company, sales will fall off a cliff.…There are very few acts post-1990 that can boast platinum certifications more than a year after release.…The promoters will just as happily push Hanson as Bob Dylan, Spice Girls as Aretha Franklin: they are completely agnostic on the quality front.…In effect, the record labels cannot afford to build artist careers anymore. They can only afford to milk the current promotional mechanism.

I think this is fantastic because it suggests a way to hasten the demise of such record companies, which have become relics clinging to outdated methods instead of offering me the products that I want. The strategy to do so lies in the answer to the following question: If, hypothetically, Britney Spears were to vanish in some way (sudden retirement, injury, plane crash, etc.) what would that do to the financials of her label and the company that owns it. If such an event were unexpected, it’s fair to say that Jive Records would need to scramble to survive and would have a fair chance of collapsing. Sony would, unfortunately, fair better, being more diversified, but would take a financial hit as well.

By putting their eggs in one basket, record labels leave themselves open to attacks aimed at destroying the basket that don’t cost very much. All a dedicated group of people would need to is target the major superstars of a label all at once and bring them down with smear campaigns and/or industrial espionage (e.g. stealing and destroying master tracks before they can be published, injecting random signals into a CD production, etc.). Since the media largely no longer check facts, they would be useful accomplices. A clever group could probably do the whole thing without even breaking the law.

Charm tree update

About two days after last updating my Exalted charm trees, some new books were released, so I’ve updated them yet again. Thanks go out to Thomas Balls-Thies, a reader who spotted a number of problems (the fixes for which uncovered about a dozen more). Changes in this version are:

  • Added charms from The Autochthonians
  • Added charms from the Cult of the Illuminated
  • Changed “Dragon-Blooded” pages to “Terrestrial”
  • Changed celestial martial arts trees to start with a generic “Celestial initiation” requirement.
  • Fixed a slew of errors, including a handful of missing charms

You can grab the update in the tools section of my Exalted page.

Sound of silence

A month ago, I posted a list of song lyrics with a challenge for my readers to identify them. My plan at the time was to post the answers after a month had gone by. In the interim, however, there have been zero responses, which means that some or all of the following are true:

  • I have no readers
  • The list was overly difficult
  • The list was overly long
  • My readers are lazy bastards
  • My readers are apathetic and grumpy

Whatever the reason, I’ve now resolved to never post a solution to the original list, but will leave it up for the intrepid. C’mon, surely you can at least guess one or two! As for the difficulty and length, I also offer the following, alternate list:

  1. I wanna rock and roll all night
  2. I am Iron Man
  3. It’s a small world, after all
  4. Silent night, holy night
  5. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire

Africa’s ruin or salvation

The Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory can now make gem quality diamonds at reasonable speed. This seems like a great thing because it seriously threatens to destroy one of the more repugnant companies on the planet: DeBeers. For decades, DeBeers has enjoyed a monopoly on the world’s diamond market, keeping the price of what is actually a fairly common mineral high by means of controlling its supply. They’ve used this monopoly to fix prices, influence and back brutal governments and indirectly fund violence against civilians. To it’s credit, DeBeers has been strongly lobbying against conflict diamonds recently, though I can’t help suspect this has more to do with further controlling supply than altruism.

Nearly all of the “common knowledge” about diamonds is a direct result of DeBeers marketing. They completely invented the “traditions” of the diamond engagement ring and tenth anniversary band and how much should be spent on each (“two months salary”, unless you live in Japan, where it is three). They are directly responsible for glamour attached to diamonds in film, backing films featuring diamonds and seeding celebrities like Marilyn Monroe with jewels for public occasions, a practice with many imitators today. All of the “common sayings” about diamonds are either DeBeers marketing slogans (“diamonds are forever”) or commissioned songs (“diamonds are a girl’s best friend”). Recently DeBeers has been using feminism to market the right hand diamond ring. (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were also masters of the altered deal.)

Synthetic diamonds are nothing new. Heck, you can even get the carbon released from cremating your body pressed into a gemstone. What is new is the low cost and high speed of production already achieved by Carnegie Institution. Mass produced gem-quality synthetic diamonds could completely undermine the DeBeers monopoly by creating an essentially infinite supply of diamonds that are higher quality than nearly all mined diamonds and completely independent of geography. Further, if the inventors of this process are really interested in using it to usher in the diamond age, they would license it very widely and cheaply. It’s conceivable that anyone with electricity could eventually grow gem-quality diamonds in their home. In this scenario, though, making gems would likely be a small afterthought to more impressive uses of similar technology (like building an elevator to space). Chances are, this won’t happen, at least for a while. Either DeBeers will come to control this new process or those that do control it will reach a “gentlemen’s agreement” with DeBeers limiting production of gems (tactics similar to those they used with GE and the Soviet Union).

Sooner or later, though, technology will reach the point when diamonds and other gems can be manufactured on a scale large enough to destroy conventional mining. The descendants of DeBeers will probably end up owning a big chunk of this industry, so they should (unfortunately) come out OK. The citizens of Africa, on the other hand, are likely to get really, really screwed by this development.

Over half the world’s diamonds are mined in Africa. In the country of Bostwana alone, in the year 2000, diamonds represented 36% of GDP and 82% of exports. Imagine that just vanishing over the space of a couple of years. Add to that the ancillary economy that supports and surrounds all that mining and you get a fairly bleak future, especially since unemployment there is already between 22 and 40% and roughly a quarter of the population is infected with HIV.

More diversified countries like South Africa should fare better, but trouble in African countries tends to spill into its neighbors one way or another.

Should the rapid collapse of the diamond mining industry come to pass, I predict an equally rapid increase in what Africa has proven, over the last fifty years, that it does really well: genocide. Since the rest of the world has indicated that it doesn’t give two shits about what happens in Africa, loss of mining income will lead to battles for control of natural resources coupled with campaigns against nearby helpless ethnicities. While militaries seize oil fields and logging operations, “terrorists” sporting equipment mysteriously identical to the local military will start slaughtering the scapegoats of the day. The tinpot thug who runs the place will vocally decry the “terrorists” but, equally mysteriously, will be unable to stop them. His wife(s) will embezzle several hundred million dollars and relocate to Europe. After the killing has gone on for several years, Kofi Annan will be horrfied and state that something must be done. The UN will ignore him by endlessly debating “sanctions”.

After a long period of this, maybe fifty years or so, people will start realizing that Africa is the only place left on Earth with easily accessible natural resources (timber, oil, various metals, uranium, cheap labor, etc.) The resulting resource rush and potential Renaissance should be something to behold, for the dozen or so Africans still alive to witness it.