Monday, August 29, 2016

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA [NORTON]

My most recent completed Norton Critical Edition is The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James Watson.  Watson, along with his partner Francis Crick, discovered the molecular structure of DNA and thus unlocked the mystery of how genetic information is transmitted.  What makes The Double Helix worth reading is that it's far from a dry science text.  It's far more in the vein of a memoir of a uncouth American's time in England, a frantic race to be first and achieve virtual immortality, and how scientific research is far from the cold and dispassionate search for truth that is still commonly held.  There's still plenty of scientific discussion that was way over my head, but it was worth powering through. The Norton Critical Edition includes some interesting essays on the controversy the book created because of the unflattering way Watson portrayed key figures in the story, and also includes contemporary book reviews and other discussions of the legacy of the achievement (though my edition is from 1980).

Friday, August 19, 2016

RealmsToowoomba Recap # 62 [RPG]

[flashback to 5 Flamerule 1372]

Having spent the previous night drinking and celebrating, Markus spends the day recovering.  A small group of his most ardent supporters, young would-be swashbucklers all, pledge their fealty to him and name themselves “Markus’ Marauders.”  Markus isn’t quite sure what to think as the youths take to wearing rapiers and foppish hats with feathers sticking out of the brim.

[flashback to 6 Flamerule 1372]

“Markus’ Marauders” lead the way as a makeshift honor guard for the swordsman down the streets of Silverymoon, and as they near the Academy crowds line the streets to cheer him on.  Inside, the building is full of Silvaeren who have come to watch the brash young upstart challenge the Academy’s deadly and notorious top student, the kenku Villiam Teeal. Even some of the city’s leadership, both noble and martial, have come to observe the match.  The Duelmaster holds up a hand to silence the chattering crowd, and after hearing a formal challenge from Markus and a formal acceptance from Villiam, explains the nature of the duel.  “A true blademaster wields his sword not just to harm his foes, but to protect his allies,” she explains.  Thus, Villiam and Markus are to work together to defeat the combined forces of the other four ranked students of the Academy.  Only then would it be wise to strike one another, she continues, because if either of the two are vanquished before all of the other students, both duelists lose their place in the Academy and are banished until the Duelmaster is satisfied they warrant reentry.

Six fighters take up randomly-assigned positions in the arena: Markus (on the North side), Villiam (on the Side side), McBronzebottom, the Yuan-ti Yazzan, Lady Demuria, and the half-orc Kronk (as El Capitan has quit the Academy and left Silverymoon).  Scattered throughout the arena are a variety of extra weapons, along with a collection of unknown magickal potions in the center.  When the duel begins, it is clear that the four lesser ranked students had settled on a clear strategy: divide and conquer!  Lady Demuria immediately rushes for Villiam and scissor-kicks him, wrapping her powerful thighs around the lightweight kenku, pinning him to the ground!  As she squeezes the life out of him, Yazzan throws daggers at him and McBronzebottom levels his massive bastard sword.  Meanwhile, Kronk heads for the center of the arena to collect potions, and, inexplicably, Markus follows.  Villiam struggles to break free of Lady Demuria’s grip, but every time he does so, seconds later he’s caught again.  It’s clear the Academy’s top student is in peril, but still Markus doesn’t come to his aid.  Seconds later, Villiam lapses into unconscious and the Duelmaster calls the match to a halt, awarding the victory to the lesser ranked students.  Only after, in conversation with the other duelists, does an explanation come for Markus’ odd behavior: he forgot the conditions of the match, and mistakenly thought that if Villiam fell in battle, he (Markus) would win!  McBronzebottom suggests ale as the best means to cure a disappointing end to the young swordsman’s promising quest for the legendary Ninefangs, and Markus agrees.  Although having suffered a defeat, Markus has clearly made a new friend.

[9 Flamerule 1372 continued]

In Thay, the adventurers confront an enraged Felix Ruul.  Upon their passage into the country, their identities were circulated to the various Orders for routine intelligence-gathering and Felix has surmised that their purpose is to find Cain.  Despite the Red Wizard’s bluster and threats, however, the group remains surprisingly calm.  Dolcetto (in Fargrim’s dwarf body) throws the man off-balance by acting quite deranged, while Mellia says that they are present in Thay as lawful supplicants to the Flaming Brazier.  Felix snarls that if the group makes but a single misstep, he will bring the full force of the Order of Evocation down upon them.  And more, he says that the Church of Kossuth has little influence outside Thay, and that he will mark the adventurers for destruction if they somehow extricate Cain from the temple’s punishment chambers.  The wizard then teleports away, clearly frustrated that the adventurers gave him no provocation for violence.  Mellia hastily composes a telepathic warning to Cain, but the cleric’s reply shows little concern: “Ignore that worm, he is meaningless.”

Shortly after the morning meal, an abashed Pirith returns from reporting her progress to the Guild of Foreign Trade.  She apologizes to Dolcetto for being so intrusive about Multivar’s portal, explaining that she had no idea the adventurers were friends of the esteemed envoy from Silverymoon, Mortimont.  She says that the Guild has suggested, and she has agreed, to make recompense to Dolcetto by transferring her own senior household slave to him.  Dolcetto graciously accepts, and even queries if there is a way to speed delivery of the property from Pirith’s residence in western Thay.

Inside the Flaming Brazier, Mellia returns to the fourth terrace. This time, she attempts to start a fire the old-fashioned way, and succeeds admirably.  For the test of purification, she is challenged to pluck a coloured rock from a cauldron of boiling water.  The wizard steels herself against pain and succeeds on her second try.  The fifth terrace is clearly a repository: holy relics of the faith, fire-warded prayer-books, ancient treatises on elemental forces, and more.  The thousands of items are maintained in perfect order and with exteme care, no doubt due to the supervision of this terrace’s lead Tendril, the Indoctrinator.  The priest stands stiffly and, with no facial expressions, poses a series of questions to Mellia about the nature of fire and the tenets of the Flamelord.  Mellia has to think on her feet, but by hewing closely to a single theme (the supremacy of fire), she just manages to satisfactorily answer each question and is allowed to take the test of purification. 

Here, however, she is presented with a test unlike any other she has ever been presented with.  Mellia is led by a pair of warrior-monks up and down labyrinthine corridors until she finds herself in a dimly-lit chamber.  A man is strapped, spread-eagled, to a wooden frame and is clearly terrified.  “The righteous are instructed to punish the wicked,” one of the Disciples of the Salamander explains.  “This malefactor has committed sins against the Lord of Flames.  But his purification will not be complete until he has confessed and rededicated himself.  You must aid him on this journey.” The warrior-monk then motions to a nearby table full of torture implements, including brands and jagged cutting tools, before he and his companion exit and leave Mellia alone with the prisoner, charged with discovering the nature of his misdeeds.

Mellia first tries to talk the man into confessing.  When she has little success, she weaves a divination to detect his thoughts and asks him several leading questions.  She discovers the man thinking about the Candlekeeper (the Tendril of the first terrace) being the one behind certain thefts, but it’s not clear whether this is the truth, a distraction, or simply a lie the man is preparing.  Mellia casts another divination to peer into the Candlekeeper’s office, but she is unable to find anything incriminating.  Unwilling to actually torture the man, Mellia exits the chamber and reports her best guess to the warrior-monks.  They abruptly announce that she has failed the test of purification and can advance no further this day.

When she returns to the inn, Mellia tells Dolcetto and Fargrim (in each other’s bodies) that her progress has once again slowed.  The idea is floated that if Multivar’s portal returns everyone to Silverymoon before Mellia reaches Cain, she could perhaps re-enter the portal to Laothkund and then teleport directly to Bezantur.  Mellia decides to ask Pirith to escort her, Fargrim, and Dolcetto to the Guild of Foreign Trade to find Mortimont, in the hopes that the strange little bug-eyed fellow will help her gain official permission for such a return visit should it be necessary.  The three adventurers find Mortimont ensconced in a fine guesthouse maintained by the Guild.  Flanked by his golems, Mortimont is wearing a white apron and baking some delicious-smelling pastries.  He expresses his joy in seeing the trio, and quickly agrees to write a letter to the authorities supporting their request for permission for a return visit.  He continues to maintain that his purpose in coming to Thay is to find a new market for his baked goods.  He also indicates that he has offered to take a representative of the Guild back with him to Silverymoon when Multivar’s portal draws everyone back.  The three adventurers depart with the uneasy feeling they always have when having spent time with the odd little man.

Back at the inn, Dolcetto shares with Ralkin and Myst (in each other’s bodies) her concerns about Mortimont bringing agents of Thay back with them to Silverymoon.  She says it complicates the situation and indicates that perhaps the group should prepare steps to counter it, but Ralkin’s response is swift and blunt: who cares?  If the authorities back in Silverymoon are concerned by sudden visitors from Thay, it’s their problem, not the group’s.

The rest of the night passes uneventfully for the adventurers.

[10 Flamerule 1372]

In the morning, Dolcetto asks Syd whether he has any spells that can protect him against fire.  It soon becomes clear that Dolcetto is considering trying to climb up to the top of the Flaming Brazier using the outside steps and passing directly through the curtain of flame that bars entry to the seventh terrace.  Although this has the potential to speed up the process of gaining an audience with the temple’s leader, the Eternal Flame, Mellia is not pleased when she learns of the idea.  She glares at Dolcetto and says she is close to getting Cain out and won’t have anyone putting her entire strategy at risk just because they are getting antsy to leave Thay.  When Mellia heads to the temple, Syd keeps a close eye on Dolcetto to make sure she doesn’t try anything.

Mellia is escorted to the fifth level to take the test of purification and is once again led to a darkened cell.  This time, a young woman in threadbare clothing lays huddled in the corner.  Mellia is told that the woman aspires to join the devotees in the temple, but has been suspected of ulterior motives.  Mellia is to discover whether the woman is sufficiently pure.  When alone with her, Mellia speaks to the woman, who offers her name as Jilliatni.  Jilliatni says that she was a slave who become free when her master died without any heirs, and that she petitioned the Flaming Brazier because it is one of the few institutions in Thay where advancement does not depend on one’s heritage or class.  After getting as much information as she can, Mellia decides she has to ensure Jilliatni is telling the truth; and to do this, she taps into the Weave and channels a wave of flame at her!  Jilliatni cries out in agony as the fire leaves her severely burned and barely alive, but conscious.  Mellia quickly exits the room and confronts the warrior-monks who had escorted her there.  She says that she has done what she can to find out the truth from Jilliatni, and that if she is expected to serve as an executioner, that needs to be made clear to her.  The warrior-monks are satisfied, however, and state that Mellia has passed the test: whether Jilliatni was or was not sincere in her devotion to Kossuth was of no importance; what mattered was that Mellia was willing to embrace the purifying power of flame in order to try to discover the truth. 

Although the diviner is granted permission to ascend to the sixth terrace, she has become a torturer.  A moral barrier has been broken, the implications of which loom large in the future.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

The Torchwood Archives [Torchwood]

The Torchwood Archives is a fun "in-universe" companion book to the show.  The premise is that it's a compilation of material cobbled together by an author named Warren Martyn who got so close to the truth that his manuscript had to be seized and placed securely in Torchwood's vaults. The book is cleverly done to look like the real thing, complete with faux-coffee stains, "taped-in" photographs, post-it notes, handwritten marginalia, etc.  Functionally, it contains some interesting history of the Torchwood Institute prior to Season One and then serves as a bit of an episode guide for the first two seasons.  Here's what it contains in more depth:

(1)  A fun preface by Ianto explaining how the book came into Torchwood's hands and who Warren Martyn is/was.

(2)  An introductory letter from Warren Martyn to his planned publisher, explaining the basis for his strong belief that Torchwood exists.  The letter references all of the craziness that London has experienced from fifty+ years of Doctor Who to show that, obviously, aliens are among us.

(3)  The Torchwood Charter from 1879 assented to by Queen Victoria.  It establishes Torchwood's primary purpose (protecting England from visitors from other "heavenly bodies") and sets forth the role of the Torchwood Institute (a.k.a., Torchwood One in London), Torchwood Glasgow (Torchwood Two), and Torchwood Three (Cardiff--the one we know!).

(4)  Notes on Torchwood One and Torchwood Two.  Includes a lot of speculation about what happened on Canary Wharf.

(5)  Notes on Torchwood Three.  There's a ton of really interesting little bits and pieces here, including:

--speculation that there are underground tunnels connecting the Torchwood sites;

--mention of an earthquake destroying part of Torchwood Three in 1906;

--a "stolen e-mail" from Tosh to Suzie Costello explain her theories on the rift;

--an e-mail from Suzie wondering why Torchwood didn't intervene in the near-explosion of a nuclear plant in Cardiff (from Doctor Who's "Boom Town" episode);

--speculation about Jack, Suzie, Owen, Tosh, Ianto, and Gwen  (interesting side note:  Jack took over leadership of Torchwood in 2000 after the New Year's Eve massacre; Tosh joined in 2005, Owen in 2006, and Gwen & Ianto joined in 2007;  when did Suzie join and who else, if anyone, was on the team in the years 2000-2004?)

(6)  Episode-by-episode notes.  It's a bit weird to put episode titles in a book that's supposed to be "in-universe", but perhaps we can fan-wank this as the titles given to each incident by Warren Martyn.  There's various in-universe memos, police reports, photos, etc. about each incident. My favorite bits here are memos written by Jack that subtly show his and Ianto's growing involvement and a memo from "1999" by James Lawson to Alex Hopkins on the development of RetCon (James Lawson is Owen's predecessor as team doctor).

The Torchwood Archives is obviously pre-Children of Earth, though it does include some material from audiobooks like Lost Souls.  Overall, I thought it was clever and well-done.  Sadly, Ianto notes in an epilogue that author Warren Martyn is missing, so surely there will never be a sequel . . . 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Mynock Squadron Recap # 10 [RPG]

[4.6.11 ABY]

Outside a secret Imperial research base hidden in a dense asteroid field, Kero and Stavros witness a hangar door open and a trio of TYE-Uglies emerge. Kero immediately destroys one with a proton torpedo, but the others transmit a mysterious signal that causes hidden thrusters placed on asteroids in a certain area around the base to fire, creating a narrow but clear corridor for escape! Stavros maneuvers to give chase, and comms Torga, Waric, and Keth to cut off the fleeing pirates before they manage to reach the edge of the field, activate their hyperdrives, and potentially spread the mysterious "blue sickness."

The Y-Wing shared by Waric and Keth quickly reaches the far side of the exit corridor, and Waric's torpedo obliterates a second TYE-Ugly. Stavros manages to pull the third one into a dogfight, and Kero disables the vessel with ion blasts before Waric finishes it off.

With the immediate threat neutralized, Stavros asks Kero whether they should destroy the base now or board it to try to find more information on the disease. Kero seems little troubled by the conflicting orders, and says that of course the group is going in. The three Y-Wings land in the hangar and see a heavily damaged freighter and some bodies floating in the zero-gravity of vacuum. Waric manages to skillfully exit his Y-Wing, traverse the hangar, and restore gravity and atmosphere. 

In the hangar, Kero examines one of the bodies and notices a strange silver substance coating its lower extremities, and is surprised to see it slowly, but visibly, advancing. Kero, quite distracted, tells Waric to take charge. As the others advance through the airlock, Stavros is told to stay behind in the Y-Wing since his flight suit had been damaged earlier and he's at risk of disease. Torga's flight suit is in even worse shape, but she's eager to go forward and receives no orders to the contrary.

At the far end of the airlock corridor, Waric notices that the door has strange finger-like indentations pressed into the metal at the bottom edge. After opening the door, Waric, Torga, and Keth find themselves in a junction room, with corridors heading off in each of the cardinal directions. The door to the left is labelled "Research Vault Hub", and when Waric opens it, he sees a corpse laying on the ground, covered almost head to toe in the same silver substance that coated the lower extremity of the body in the hangar bay. While Waric watches, the silver substance advances until it completely encapsulates the corpse, and then the body begins to move!

The body stands up and announces, in an emotionless voice: "Systems Online. Second Empire Protocol is in Effect. Waiting for Supplementary Orders. No Supplementary Orders Received. Default Programming in Effect. Programming: 1) Obey the Bearers. 2) Destroy All Others." Taking no chances, the pilots open fire, but their blaster bolts have only minimal effect.

The Nanoshaped creature advances towards Waric and the others. Waric quickly hits the control to shut the door, but the creature's fingers seem to flow like liquid through the seals and reform into fingers on the other side! The sound of grinding metal fills the air. Kero, still examining the body in the hangar bay, asks for a sit-rep and after being quickly filled in tells everyone to retreat. Keth and Torga make it out of the room, but Waric isn't so lucky. The Nanoshaped wrenches the door open, forms its right arm into a spear, and stabs the pilot in the back! As the others jump into the cockpits of their waiting Y-Wings, Waric manages to stagger to his feet and join them as the Nanoshaped steadily advances. 

The three Y-Wings of Gamma Flight rendezvous in safety outside of the base. Kero gives the order to destroy it, and the pilots fire the remainder of their torpedoes through the open hangar doors to detonate the base from the inside. In seconds, only charred debris remains.

Waric remains cautious, however, and does a full sensor scan of the debris. He's somehow able to get a fix on the still-moving Nanoshaped, and Gamma Flight opens fire again. It's not clear if the creature is destroyed, but it seems to be contained at least for the moment. Kero orders the group to take up positions around the asteroid field while they wait for further orders. As they do so, they receive an incoming transmission from Tazo-Rhi: Kors Tanzent is still alive, but had to be in cold stasis to slow the spread of the disease ravaging his body--and initial tests show it is not biological in origin, but the work of a highly advanced nano-virus. Unless the shutdown signal is found, the disease cannot be cured. Have the members of Mynock Squadron escaped infection?

Director's Commentary (August 5, 2016)

There's not a lot to say about this one: a classic "dungeon crawl in space" with a mysterious, remote space station occupied by an incredibly dangerous adversary.  I completely 100% swiped the Nanoshaped from silver liquid type Terminator (a "T-1000" Google tells me), but everyone knew and we laughed about it.  It did exactly what I wanted it to as it posed a scary new threat to the PCs that a couple of blaster bolts wouldn't solve, and it foreshadowed the "Second Empire" storyline that would be the backbone of the campaign.

Liquid Terminators--don't mess with the classics!
Uh, Jeremy, I think Star War is the wrong franchise for me . . .

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