Majoring (in disaster)

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My Bookshelf of Role-playing Games contains roughly three dozen of them, spread out over two and a half metres of shelf space. There are rulebooks, supplements, sourcebooks, modules, notebooks and binders, the latter two full of largely illegible handwriting that no human being on earth will ever be able to read (and that includes me). Various genres are represented in this almost Trumpian wall of deficient socialization — fantasy, science fiction, scantily-clad women with gargantuan firearms, interdimensional invasions by cybernetically enhanced religious fanatics, bio-engineered monsters from the future, stuff like that.

And superheroes. There are five of those. (Even more if you use a slightly, um, ‘relaxed’ definition of what exactly constitutes a superhero.) Those five N games describe different worlds, styles, levels of ‘realism’ and powers — powers that range from ‘Analytic Smell’ to ‘Withstand Bagpipes’ (though it occurs to me that that may be a Skill, not a Power. Whatever.).

It occurred to me that, while I don’t have any of those (though I do kinda like bagpipes) I do have a Power — maybe even a Superpower. I don’t think it’s in any of my books, it’s not particularly useful and it takes a -2 Limitation (‘No conscious control’) so it’s even less useful.

I’m not sure of the limits of this power but I know some of the things it can do:

That last one is probably one of the reasons that I’m not particularly fond of travel.

To be clear, I’m not completely averse to going to new places or seeing new things but I don’t exactly care for the process of getting to them. Because there are significant opportunities for bad things to happen — I’ve talked about some of them. I’ve talked about spending the day in an airport four thousand kilometers from home because of a ramp. I’ve described the ‘fun‘ of sprinting through a crowded airport because airlines think that’s better than treating Little People like, well, people. I don’t think I mentioned the joy of scampering through an airport in sock feet searching for a sink. (Executive summary — there wasn’t one.)

Trust me to have a paranormal ability that sucks this much.

Despite the history of difficulties (that I guess technically I caused) from time to time Ms. Rose and I do go places. And, inevitably, I have a story when we get back. (That would be the silver lining. It’s important to maintain a certain amount of perspective.) Our latest Adventure was about six weeks ago.

And nothing went wrong.

We got up around six hours before our flight because we had to drive three hundred (ish) kilometers to the airport — we were slowed down a little by fog but not enough to make the first stanza of a saga or anything. Meanwhile, there was no lineup for breakfast, the traffic was unremarkable and the airport, while soul-destroying and poorly signed (as airports always are) wasn’t really all that bad. The flight was no later than expected, the screaming baby didn’t have his heart in his work and actually slept part of the flight, the airline didn’t lose or (seriously) delay our luggage, there was literally NO line-up at the car rental counter and they didn’t have what we wanted so we got a free upgrade to an expensive European thingamajig. (Which was a pleasure to drive, thanks for asking.) The closest thing we had to a crisis occurred when checking in for the return trip — the airline desk wasn’t open (is that even possible?) so we had to cool our heels and wait (briefly) in the ample and even semi-comfy chairs provided. Again, not the thing stories are written about. (“And then Our Hero sat on his ample fundament and ate snacks.” Doesn’t really work.)

The rest of the trip home was even more uneventful and we arrived safely, more or less on time but without a story. (Oh noes.)

So nothing to write about — except maybe for the observation that it’s not clear which is worse — having a superpower that breaks things or having an unreliable superpower that breaks things.


Shoeing — PS (Sort of)

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I have a hockey game in a couple of hours.

Before then I have to do a few things: I have to find my socks and put them on (hopefully that will be pretty much routine but you never know — socks can be tricky), I have to not shave (I like to keep the bar low whenever I can), I have to remember where I put my glasses (usually that’s easy but sometimes I forget), pack my equipment bag (ditto), find my passport (don’t ask) and mix up a (pink, although that’s not especially important) bottle of a caffeinated beverage for a modest post-game pick-me-up (easy if the pink bottle is where it’s supposed to be). Oh, and I have to do a little reminiscing (Sorry, the hazards of age. It’ll happen to you one day.) about habits, obsession, compulsion and absent-minded professors.

Nine months ago (not) I clicked ‘Publish’ on some self-indulgent noodling (again, not) about — among other things — chairs, back hair and shoes. In particular, the story (if there was one, something I’m not entirely sure about) sort of flowed from the fact that people are creatures of habit. This has many consequences but in the context of the-story-that-may-not-even-be-a-story it means that in locker rooms a lot of people tend to sit in the same place and there can be Consequences (really not, although it is worth a listen if you’re at all partial to late 1970s prog-rock) if they don’t.

This is where my little inside voice piped up. “Hey!” it said “You tend to obsess about the strangest things. Are you sure this isn’t something that you’re imagining?”

That’s a decent question, Voice. I’ll have to think about that.

I was doing exactly that when I arrived at the arena last week.  I sat in my usual seat (of course) and looked around — everyone else was too.

Everyone? No, not everyone. M— came in and, quite deliberately, sat in D—‘s seat. From around the room came a chorus of comments, complaints and abuse:


Hey! That’s not your seat!

and, most telling

Somebody’s gonna get hurt today.

H’m. Does that answer your question, Voice?


Gapping (not spark plugs though)

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A gentleman who I think lives in Vancouver asked for stories about

the struggle to close the gap between an idea and its realization.

Well, that’s kind of the story of my life, isn’t it? So I tried to think of an example and the first thing that came to mind was that time I tried to modify seven gecos fields simultaneously while dynamically merging five different password files.

It didn’t work, of course — I tripped over an extremely subtle bug (or possibly an undocumented limit; I never did find out) in Perl 4.036 and had to find a workaround that was easy to implement, easy to explain and wasn’t too ugly (not that my code was a thing of beauty, you understand, but still…). It was a moderately entertaining process and…

Hmm. This is where it occurs to me that not everyone might find the process of crafting kludges (even if it is sort of on-topic) endlessly fascinating. Perhaps a change of subject is in order.

It was gaming night.

When I was younger In the olden days, technology wasn’t what it is today and some (not all — not every memory is in soft focus and sepia-toned) aspects of life were somewhat simpler. As a result, gaming night was usually a regularly scheduled thing. These days are, well, different. We (our group) is older, less flexible and scattered over an area several hundred kilometers across. At the same time, technology has made it simpler and faster to coordinate a posse of nerds gamers. So when I say ‘it was gaming night’ it means that it was at best a semi-planned thing. Some Preparation on my part was required.

First of all, gaming involves trappings.


Gear. But no chainsaws, psychotropic fruit or neurotoxins made it into the bag. Cattle prods, well, I’m less sure.




So I assembled what I thought I needed and crammed it into the Traditional Gaming Bag:

A rulebook. After all, rulebooks are important. How can you possibly bicker about meaningless minutiae without one?

My notebook. In particular, my notebook with the ‘confidential’ sticker that a nice lady named Margaret put on it in 1981. It contains virtually every character I’ve created in the last thirty-five years. Because what could be more relevant to today’s game than the character sheet (from 1982) of a delusional, sociopathic, violent aristocrat?

A 0.3 mm pencil. Not 0.5, you understand — .3. What better way is there to leave tiny bits of graphite under the seat cushions in someone else’s basement?

A bag (the red and white one that may or may not have been washed since the 1980s) of dice. Plus some ninja ones.

That covered the actual, you know, Gaming Stuff. But other things are de rigueur as well — one does not simply game without Sean Bean refreshments. That night I decided to adhere to the ‘sweet+caffeine/salt+fat’ theory of gaming snacks: I filled a badly-designed (but Canadian and not pink) bottle with organic stimulants and sugar and added it to the bag. Then I checked the pantry for salty, fatty snacks.

There weren’t any.

Oh. That was a problem.

Gaming without snacks? InconCEIVEable. (For the proper effect, you have to imagine Wallace Shawn saying that.) What was I to do? Well, I realized, the supermarket that’s sort of vaguely on the way to where I was going was still open. Yay! Saved! All was not lost!


On the way to the store I had decided on what sort of I was going to get. I had settled on something from the chip family — something simple, traditional and thematically appropriate. Easy peasy.

Or not.

There was a veritable wall of chips, about eleventy-zillion flavours. There were cheddar cheese flavoured chips. There were yogurt flavoured chips. Maple bacon. Dijon mustard. Pepperoncini. Low sodium (what exactly is the POINT?). Sriracha (inevitably — there’s sriracha-flavoured everything these days). Curry.  Poutine, f’r god’s sake. Even baked bean flavoured chips, although I can’t imagine anyone willingly buying those. But simple, traditional and thematically appropriate? Hard to find. Eventually I tried to visualize the N-space of chip flavours and calculate what flavour would minimize the least square distance from the Platonic ideal chip. Or at least the N-dimensional origin.

But that’s damned hard, so I picked a bag more or less at random — I think I settled on jalapeno.

The moral of this story is, I guess, that the weirdest obstacles (Butter chicken chips? Really?) pop up when trying to do the simplest things. Well, that and you never know when a copy of Bevington might come in handy at the supermarket.


Signing (A different kind.)

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The world is full of them. They’re everywhere. (Kind of like zombies in a George Romero movie. Just less smelly. One hopes.)

Of course, people being what they are, sometimes they’re not there and we just think they are. (Again, kind of like zombies.) For example, we wait and wait (and wait) for a bus and then, finally, three of them show up at once. Turns out that’s a reasonably well-understood thing. On the other hand, good things coming in threes? Bad things coming in threes? That’s just something people say; it’s the result of a deep-seated desire to impose meaning on a sometimes random, always indifferent world. And what’s up with all those threes, anyway?

Turns out there’s a rule. Why does everything have to be so complicated?

What else comes in threes? Musketeers? Perhaps. Stooges? Definitely. Sometimes. Vision-impaired mice?  Sure, but count quickly — their population has been known to fluctuate… suddenly.

How about… omens? (By which I mean portents, not decades-old horror movies without zombies..) Because I was thinking about omens a couple of weeks ago.

It was homecoming weekend — a moderately relevant one. Well, ‘relevant’ might be overstating it just a bit but it was one of those years ending in five so it was an Occasion for alumni to return to their alma mater to see how fat, bald and wrinkly their surviving classmates have become. (In other words, one of those essential opportunities for group Schadenfreude.) In my case, I didn’t see a single member of my graduating class all weekend — I suppose the survivors could have been auditioning for the next Dredd movie or something. Whatever the reason, their absence struck me as, well, unusual. Perhaps it was an… omen?  “But for what?” I wondered. “Surely nothing good.”

On Saturday Ms. Rose and I went to the Homecoming Football Game to watch young gentlemen attempt to hurt each other. We saw (of course) none of my classmates but lots of hers; the first ones we saw were sitting in the wrong section. And why were they sitting in the wrong section? Well, to frighten away undergraduates (“Eww! Old people! Icky!”), that goes without saying. But mostly because their alma mater sold them tickets to seats that didn’t exist. Not ‘obstructed view’ seats or ‘nosebleed’ seats or seats with poor leg room, you understand — nonexistent seats. That’s darned odd — most of the time institutions trying to extract money from people don’t jerk them around quite that much. Perhaps it’s…

another omen.

As before, though, it wasn’t clear what it was foreshadowing. Nothing good — that seemed abundantly clear — but I couldn’t tell more until the next day when I had an errand up the road in The Nation’s Capital.

Now, driving to The Nation’s Capital can occasionally be interesting but usually it’s a completely uneventful hundred and sixty-nine kilometer drive in the country. But that day as we pulled onto the highway the various Omens all fell into place.

It was a Sunday morning in October. October being what it is, the sky was solid gray from horizon to horizon and just as we hit the on ramp it started to rain. At that very second, America’s sweetheart clarified the previous couple of days in barely more than a dozen words:

Sunday morning when the rain begins to fall
It’s the end of the world

So that’s what the omens were predicting. Oh well, if the world ends I won’t have to rake any more leaves.


It hasn’t ended yet, but we did see leaves I almost certainly won’t have to rake.

Thanks to a nice lady dressed in black for reminding me that stooges don’t always come in threes.



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The other day a friend of mine who works in academe (she used to curl with me but after only one year couldn’t take it any more — not that I blame her or anything, this happens around me more than you’d think; she’s also sort of named after a moderately famous literary computer scientist) ‘shared’ something on what the bingo callers, talking heads and pundits like to call ‘Social Media.’ In particular, she pointed out an article in the Guardian on why, among people doing Ph.D. degrees, more women than men appear not to desire to pursue careers in academia. (The study was specifically done on chemists so it’s not entirely safe to extrapolate too far, but it does point to a potentially troubling gender asymmetry.)

The article got me to thinking — when and why did I decide not to pursue a career as an academic? Part of it was due to the employment climate of the time of course — jobs in my particular corner of academe were exceedingly rare: in essence you had to wait for someone who was roughly twenty years older than you to win the lottery, come into an inheritance or die prematurely. If that happened you still had to hope that the job would be filled and filled by someone with your particular specialty  (since my specialty was ‘nothing’ this part was, um, a little tricky) then you had to be the best damned candidate in a forest of applicants, all of them at least as qualified as you and probably less annoying to boot. The prospect of — at best — spending decades as a doomed postdoc of no fixed abode didn’t really appeal to me. (In those pre-weeb days there weren’t tens of thousands of people eager to tell you how unpleasant that would be. It was enough that the postdoc in the next office was trying to support a family of four on roughly the same salary that I had as a grad student.)

That was strike one.

Strike two was what you had to look forward to if you actually succeeded. As a junior professor you’d be asked to teach the courses no one else wanted to teach while at the same time sitting on every damned committee that no one at all wanted to sit on, all the while cranking out papers like some sort of relentless, unstoppable machine. (Kind of like this, now that I think of it. Only less violent. And without an Austrian accent.) And in the end it might not even work. Call me a quitter if you like, but that didn’t really sound like a lot of fun to me.

As for strike three, well, to be a professor you have to wear uncomfortable clothes (and I’ve only worn a necktie three times since 1987) and have a strong dose of savoir-faire. Which, well, I don’t.

I knew about the neck ornaments (which is strike two-and-a-half all by itself) but I didn’t know about the savoir-faire bit until one morning after playing hockey.

In those days grad students and some of  their friends and colleagues played hockey on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 AM. This ungodly hour was chosen because the ice was a little cheaper and also because, with only a minimal amount of attention to efficiency it was entirely possible to shower, change and still be at work by 9:30 with the entire day still ahead of you. Of course, grad students being what they are that didn’t always happen but it was possible.

But not everyone who played with that group was a lazy-ass grad student. Heck, some of the students (not many, certainly not me) were motivated and hardworking. Plus there were also postdocs, RAs and even a few professors (only one of whom I ever hit ‘down there’ with a slap shot) and most of them made an effort to do the 9:30 thing. (Some of them even succeeded.)  In particular, one of the professors (the one that habitually played in a Red Army sweater, not that that’s relevant to the story) taught a course with a lecture at 9:30. Professors are normally expected to attend their own lectures so after every game we were treated to a demonstration of quiet efficiency and economy of action: hit the bench, strip off the equipment, load the bag, hit the shower, towel off, don the suit, tie the tie, head out the door.

Until one week his established routine was disrupted. (Before you ask, I had nothing to do with it.) He was putting on his suit and not wasting time pondering the age-old fasten/zip dilemma when…

the zipper on his pants broke. Catastrophically.


This disrupted his well-oiled and practised routine. Broken pants. Who ever heard of broken pants? More importantly, what’s a Serious Academic to do? He couldn’t just skip them, that would undoubtedly cause… consternation.  But he couldn’t very well wear them. Could he? And there wasn’t time to rush home for a non-defective change of clothes. He could have borrowed something but let’s face it — borrowing from a grad student’s wardrobe is complete madness.

A dilemma to be sure. He solved it like any good physicist would, with efficiency, creativity, quiet humour and using the tools at hand.

In particular, his necktie. (Not.) He tied it so that the front bit (which I just learned is called the ‘blade‘ — the internet: not just for porn) hung down to mid-thigh, thus covering any potential… let’s call it an ‘area of controversy.’ And off he went, only a couple of minutes behind schedule and only a little (yeah, right) unfashionable.

Problem solved.

Of course, several ‘helpful’ individuals (ahem) turned up in his lecture, sat in the back row and were remarkably focussed in their attempts to provoke a, I think it’s called a ‘wardrobe malfunction.’ He put up with the antics of these halfwits with remarkable grace, avoided an embarrassing scenario and presented a pretty good lecture on certain aspects of classical mechanics. Savoir-faire.

I couldn’t do that. Stee-rike THREE!