New on Desk #46 — Chasing the Fox

All right, today we’re going to discuss something super-exciting. I’ve been befuddled the entire week because of a stray inspiration to update my web browser. It’s like getting new shoes, except even more rare.

Human cybernetics

The amount of information processing that the present-day man (read: me and my ilk) needs to merely survive is astounding. How ever could I keep abreast of all the Internet flows, maintain and update my information banks, and generally operate the process of being human without fluid cybernetic tools? “Cybernetic” in the sense of conjoining man and machine.

The web browser is essential here, what with the modern Internet being basically all browser-based. The work state of my browser involves hundreds of open tabs organized intricately for various purposes; some other power-users may rely on bookmarks or personal wikis, but this isn’t an uncommon arrangement by any means, from what I’ve read of other people’s browsing techniques. There’s a certain simple utility in a work-flow where you open many pages, process them with the browser itself as your inbox and retain what you will for future needs. Have the browser hibernate what you don’t need in the moment, and have some powerful tools for examining the tab banks and jumping between contexts.

All in all, we have it pretty good nowadays; although the current-day computer-assisted human information processor is not obviously superior to preceding generations in every respect, there are some pretty cool things we can do when it comes to categorizing, accessing, processing and storing information. Read the equivalent of five newspapers in the time it took the 20th century man to read one, for instance. The comics page is generally superior, too.

Being the battleground in the browser wars

The golden age of massive tabulation in mainstream browsers was in the late late ’00s, roughly, when Firefox developed to its height as a web browser. That’s when I learned to work in this way, in a technological context where memory leaks were largely a historical concern and the browser’s customability was high. I had a perpetual, highly intricate browser environment fine-tuned to my own specific preferences, no less complex than any professional software utilized at high level.

The IT-oriented reader probably knows how this story ends: in the mid-’10s the development overhead on the Firefox browser had apparently become unjustifiable for the development team, what with Chrome having seized most of the market share. Firefox was stripped down into a lightweight core browser (with a new Chrome-plagiarized user interface, to add insult to injury) that would stop supporting the so far considerably advanced modular addon ecosystem of the browser. The old Firefox essentially stopped existing at that point, the continuity of user experience — and more importantly, work state — stopped when the new browser was no longer compatible with the hundreds and thousands of addons that many power-users relied on.

I’m sure that the development direction choice made there worked out for the main branch of Firefox development, but it didn’t work for me; to use the new Firefox I would essentially have to reinvent the way I use the web browser altogether. The new browser lacked essential features like tab groups and tab hibernation that an “use tabs instead of bookmarks” workflow relies on. It wouldn’t really be viable for me to fish out the tabs I wanted to use moment to moment if I had to fish them out from a list of hundreds, and the new Chrome-style sandboxed tab processing (each browser tab exists as its own process strand in the operating system) certainly made a non-hibernating browser a non-starter if you wanted to open more than a couple of dozen pages at once.

Entrancing stuff, isn’t it? I do a bit of web development as a sideline (21st century economy, everybody should diversify their skill sets), so I do understand how my friends tend to ignore me when I start into the nitty-gritty details of the browser wars. I promise to keep non-technical here, though, so read on.

What I ended up doing back then, smartly or not, was your classic reactionary move; I joined a cult dedicated to the maintenance of things the way they were. After all, things were just fine before Mozilla decided to ruin my day by updating Firefox so it broke Firefox. In a word, I switched browsers to Waterfox, a Firefox off-shoot that basically made its mission to stop time and keep being the old Firefox. The main selling point was very literally that the 2–3 core addons I loved to use, things like Tab Groups and Live Bookmarks and such, still worked in Waterfox.

The dawn of a new era

A few years have passed since then, and I’ve been muddling through with Waterfox. I feel like I’ve got something here with the reactionary characterization, because Waterfox’s been working for me in the same way reactionary politics seem to work out when they’re implemented in the social sphere: it does work, technically speaking, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and more importantly, it slowly loses functionality in minor ways until you end up noticeably worse off than you started with.

To be specific, my Waterfox installation has been getting a bit long the tooth, which mainly shows in how addon compatibility (the thing that made me go with Waterfox in the first place) keeps wavering. At this point it’s the human at the end of the user interface who adapts, so I put up with the minor issues like randomly inaccessible settings pages (that one’s more fun than it sounds like; session storage, including backups are controlled from there) and whatnot rather than lose my accustomed workspace.

Earlier this fall I took the bold new step of starting to use Iron (a Chrome variant) side by side with Waterfox, on the premise that I could slowly migrate my practical browsing to the new browser. The Iron, being up to date in a way the Waterfox is not, is generally more compatible with today’s websites, and it crashes much less (as in, it doesn’t really). So all good in that regard.

However, I find that I don’t really like using Chrome. It’s a long list of petty complaints, and I’m sure that they can all be addressed one by one, but the truth is that there’s just too much UI in the Firefox browser family that I’m used to, and it’s a pain to adapt to different setups. Arbitrary things like wanting to have a dedicated search bar instead of writing queries into the address bar, or wanting to use backspace to go back in the tab history.

So it took a while, but we’re now in present day: I decided earlier this week to install the newest Firefox and see how it’s getting along — I’ve been off in reactionary orthodox land for five years after all. At this writing it seems like I’ve struck gold! The Firefox I abandoned was a crippled beast, lacking many essential features. Things have improved since then as ambitious developers have worked to bring Firefox up to speed, and the browser has some pretty reasonable power user tools today. Not quite as good as it used to (this isn’t nostalgia, there’s actually a silly set of sandboxing limitations in current-day addon development that prevent addons from being as good as they used to be in doing the things they used to do), but good enough to make a go at using it. The fact that the browser seems stable and fast doesn’t hurt.

Much is different, like I’ve actually ended up trying a “tree-style” tab organization scheme instead of my accustomed tab groups solution, but at this writing I’m hopeful. I even got something resembling live bookmarks to function, which is nice, as that’s basically my favoured way to use RSS feeds.

The largest complaint I have at this point is that the browser has this new tick about being occasionally unresponsive when opening pages; I probably need some UI indicator that I’m not currently quite grasping to maintain precise awareness of what the browser is doing moment to moment. As in, it’s probably not so much that the browser is unresponsive, but rather that it’s not providing me with some visual cue I’m used to when I open a new page, and that’s why the delay between the command and page open feels to me like the browser is “frozen”. Firefox has been going towards Chrome-style minimalism for the last decade, so the current iteration is usually more minimalistic than I’d prefer.

So yeah, that’s the story of my week: I’ve basically been moving content arrangements and bookmarks and whatnot between browsers, and looking up new addons to spruce my work environment with. Exciting. Apparently the newest hotness in productivity enchantments is to set up your web browser to block you from wasting time in Facebook or other time-sink-of-your-choice. That may not be for me, but nice to see that ideas of how to combine man with machine are progressing.

Monday: Coup de Main #22

Meanwhile in the more interesting world of roleplaying news, we played some more Coup on Monday, as we’ve been doing with near clock-like regularity for almost half a year now. As expected after last time’s tour de force, the session revolved around the clean-up and climatic confrontation with Kimchel the merchant-spy-saboteur: Kimchel had just shot his bolt last night (diegetically speaking) with a failed commando raid on the adventurers, so after dodging the attack the party had an excellent opportunity to turn the tables and seize initiative.

Rob Banks the 4th level Thief is pretty formidable in urban maneuver in his home town, so he actually took care of the non-trivial task of finding where the commandos from last night had gone to ground. He did it so fast that Kimchell was meanwhile simply trying to find Rob himself, or really any member of his party, wasting his entire morning on this. Kimchel was in recovery mode by this point, anyway; as he wasn’t quite officially involved in last night’s hostilities he wanted to touch base with Rob, but he didn’t have much in the way of a plan for what to do.

So Rob knew where the mercenaries Kimchel had hired were waiting for their employer. He opted to wait for Kimchel to appear himself, which occurred around noon; this was Rob’s chance to listen in on the meeting between Kimchel and the gang, a probable moment to learn something of their further plans. In reality the plans were simple and discussion boring, basically just an acknowledgement that they would have to leave Yggsburg, as the risk of being caught as last night’s robbers had gotten too high. Not that Rob could predict this.

The subtle spying job didn’t seem that difficult, considering the scrapes Rob’s been to: he would simply need to sneak by the hovel the gang were hiding in and try to listen to their discussion. Unfortunately this was when Heikki started rolling craps, as one does in D&D, while the mercenaries were on fire: one of the mercs noticed Rob approaching the hovel, warned the others to distract him, and successfully sneaked up on him while he was intent on listening to the others. Quite the catastrophe!

An awkward wrestling combat took place (I’m not actually sure if it isn’t a feature in D&D for wrestling to be awkward; it’s kinda awkward in reality, too, isn’t it), with a variety of desperate maneuvers, but the outcome wasn’t really in doubt when the hardened veteran 3rd level Fighters got Rob locked down. Heikki pushed back admirably hard on the wrestling, I have to say, even applying my controversial HP cancel rule to try and get Rob to slip away.

So Rob got beaten half to death and captured by Kimchel’s men who then proceeded to escape town with their new hostage on tow. Simple enough.

A nice complicating factor on the maneuvers was that half of the party was committed to the witch trial occurring concurrently on the same day. Meant that Rob had rather limited backup, which of course contributed to his being caught like that. Another excellent turn was that one of the players was bringing in a new player character, a Ranger called Rock Lobba (he uses a sling); the funny part was that the player suggested that one of Kimchel’s men could be this cold-blooded murderer and kitten-killer that his character was hunting as part of his duties as a shire reeve. OK, I’m cool with the idea of adding an unrepentant murdered into the crew, why not. Not exactly a pure wargaming conceit to modify the OoB mid-scenario like that, but if the players are happy with it, I am too.

Of course we didn’t expect back then that Rob would get captured by the mercenaries. As the situation developed, though, the fact that this “Ricacar Roynas, cruel murderer” was part of the gang took on ever more pressing tones: the rest of them are Unaligned, with the leader Lawful Neutral, but Ricacar here (he’s the fellow Rob mainly wrestled with), he wants blood. He doesn’t want a man who’s seen his face to go back home in one piece.

We did some rigorous maneuvers and such, as one does in wargamey D&D like this, but the final situation at the end of the session was pretty straightforward: Kimchel and friends escaped from the town, and night fell before the town guard could locate them. Phun Eral, Rob’s adventurer friend, got an ominous demand letter from the kidnappers. Rob himself sweet-talked them into not robbing him of his possessions (the biggest win of the evening, frankly; even if Rob survives this, losing the Heart of Nestor he’s carrying would be pretty devastating), and it seems like Ricacar Roynas will probably not just outright start torturing him as long as his pals are in the vicinity, so the situation is kinda-sorta stable.

We’ll see next time how the situation resolves; all expectation on my part is that it’ll get dealt with relatively amiably, but maybe the players will do something drastic that’ll drive Kimchell to raise the stakes himself in return, and then Rob ends up dead in a ditch somewhere between Yggsburg and Greyhawk. From my perspective this scenario already had its climax with Kimchel’s dangerous yet failed night assault; it left Kimchel in an ultimately untenable position, and it doesn’t seem like the players are just folding over for him, so unless they fumble some more this’ll probably turn out in their favor in the end.

Session #23 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 16.11., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Thursday: Varangian Way

Later in the week our viking sandbox playtest campaign, Varangian Way, kept going forward. We’ve been discussing the game’s development direction and trying out minute variations of the rules, so there’s plenty to do in that regard. The day’s session was notable in that we’d managed to drive the character phase (a kind of control structure the game uses to figure out what we’re doing) into a kind of GM lock: all the scenes we could play were ones that I was GMing for the other players. Well, sure, why not.

The session also experienced something that’s a bit of a general theme for the game: the scenes were pretty long and detailed. This would be business as usual for most story games, but here I’d like it if we could play faster. As it is, we’re spending like three sessions to resolve one character phase. I don’t know what the right approach to speeding up the game would be, but as it is I fear that we’re leaving opportunities unclaimed by playing so slow.

Both of the scenes we played this time were pretty legit on their own merits, though. The first one was a very Arthurian, very Kalevalaic affair, the marriage feast of the King of Finland whom we’d crowned previously. The creativity went into wonderful places, including an extended simile between the Kalevalaic character of Lemminkäinen and the Arthurian character of Sir Lancelot. The marriage feast itself was epic to the extent that the Bear (as in, just some bear) decided to drop in and join the celebrations. Surely a good sign for the new realm!

The second scene was of a very different genre, but I thought that it was cute all the same: young Marjaana, a girl with mysterious magical powers, has been mistaken as a “jomali” (a cult veneration object, basically — typically a wooden statue) by a bunch of cunning and cruel raiders. Marjaana has been shipped along with other stolen and bought jomalis to the distant lands of the Väinä River where she’s taken to the Black City of the Gods, a grand collection of jomalis that some wacky wizard type (Koschei the Deathless, basically) is gathering for unknown purposes. Marjaana herself is excited because she thinks that her father (whom she believes was a god, rather than a good-for-nothing bum who abandoned her mother) might be here somewhere among all these hundreds of jomalis gathered here. Very Spirited Away, all in all.

Listening to Music: on monsters and men

One more evil little observation: I’ve been listening to Ghost recently, this Swedish pop-rock band, and I stumbled upon an interesting comparison. Check this out:

On the left we have Ghost, from Linköping (Sweden), represented by its singer-songwriter head honcho monster cosplayer Papa Emeritus. The band plays poppish heavy rock. Their gimmick is that they’re Satanic monsters, but it’s strictly kayfabe (that is, the musicians are entertainers play-acting at being Satanists, and the art is about as threatening as a child dressed up for Halloween).

In the meantime, on the right we have Lordi, from Rovaniemi (Finland), represented by its singer-songwriter head honcho monster cosplayer Mr. Lordi. The band plays poppish heavy rock. Their gimmick is that they’re horror movie monsters — again strictly an entertainment context, nobody is really a cannibal zombie here.

So I don’t know about you, but for me these bands invite comparison. Also, questions like “what’s the commonality between rockabilly and monster costumes?” — I mean, people often expect these bands to play something like heavy metal or even doom metal, but what you get is more like I don’t know, Michael Jackson. It feels like there’s some kind of connection that I don’t understand, some sweet spot of musical hardness for monster-costume bands that falls around heavy rock. I suppose it might be because the costume playacting thing is so silly, but then mainstream rockers are also silly…

Comparison-wise, I think Ghost is clearly the superior band of these two — the music’s more clever, music videos are actually pretty top of the line, and so on. My current favourite is Dance Macabre (I like the gymnasts, obvs.). Considering how Ghost’s been on a mild yet consistent uptick for its entire career, while Lordi is more stuck in the permanent underbill, one could take this as a mild case study in how art quality can influence success in the music business. Or it could be any of a hundred different reasons, of course.

State of the Productive Facilities

“Psionic magic” is a potentially misleading name. A name like “witchcraft” or “sorcery” or “natural magic” would be better. Yes, this is supposed to be the type of magic that e.g. superhero telepaths and creepy ‘80s horror story teenage girls wield. It’s just that it’s more than that as well.

As has been the theme this fall, I’ve been pretty productive if we count Coup-related writing. This week’s pièce de résistance was a pretty solid outline of rules for psionic magic (more commonly known as sorcery), including a couple of character classes (Hedge Mage — Witch — and Illusionist, to be specific). The material is pregnant with ideas and I’m pretty keen to see it come into play later on.

Strategically speaking the big-brain idea here is the firm identification of psionicism with sorcery. I explain the cultural antecedents in more detail in the manuscript, but the main significance is that by granting elves and dragons with the same baseline magic system that e.g. Illithids enjoy, while keeping it sort of rare among the human population of Flanaess, I should be able to achieve a stable, simple yet alien feel to the instinctual and natural magics wielded by the more magical non-human creatures. An incidental side effect is that we now have the tools to pretty much replicate the plot of Equal Rites (a classic Discworld novel, that) at will in Flanaess, so that’s something I guess.

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