Saturday 28 May 2016


A quick aside re bendiness: the physio wanted me to see a rheumatologist, which I'm very lucky work will pay for, but from a GP referral, not my physio. So I had to see my GP, who sent me for blood tests - I've ended up having three lots. She also put me on amitriptyline, which, now I've been off it for most of a week, I have to admit did reduce pain and improved how much I slept and took away my IBS but at too high a cost: I fet drugged and dopey all the time and couldn't think and had splitting headaches and nearly told my project manager to fuck off because I couldn't remember how to politely point out I was busy and now was not a good time for small talk. I also had really vivid dreams, which I'm never sure whether to put as positive or negative effect. Anyway, she let me come off after a fortnight so it's been out of my system nearly a week. I feel so much better and I am in a writing mood.

I want to talk about luck.
I trained as a maths teacher (although never went into teaching for a long list of reasons that protected me from the horrible realisation I wasn't emotionally strong enough to go into the profession I most admired), and remember being asked by one of the people training us if we believed in luck. I was the only one who said yes. Cue surprised looks, until I explained it depends how you define "luck": they were defining it in the superstitious sense, whilst I was using it as shorthand for startling coincidence or a statistically unlikely streak of events. 

It makes sense to me to use it this way: I know that you can roll a d20 three times in a row and get a 20 each time (and stick your crossbow bolt right through the big bad's head for an auto kill in the first round of combat - paragraph 8 of Absalom), or reach 40 on an exploding d6 (and find a replacement for that monofilament whip the bad guys took off you earlier). The laws of probability demonstrate that someone, somewhere in space and time is going to roll a balanced d6 and get a 6 every single time - hell, in an infinite universe, there'll be a planet somewhere whose laws of probability look very different to our own because the 6 will come up every time. 

I also know that, short of using weighted dice or learning to trick roll (which apparently isn't particularly great anyway), there's not really anything you can do to manipulate the chances of getting the result you want: lucky underwear might give you the confidence to approach that new friend, but it's not going magic the dice into doing what you want, so is manipulating luck the realm of superpowers?

It's certainly a very cool superpower, one I'd love. Control over chaos and entropy would be incredibly powerful and could stand in for most other powers - in fact, could be used to increase your chance of having any other power consistent with the rules of the universe you occupy. It's a power I'd be interested to explore in a supers game one day.

In fiction, I've only come across this idea a few times: the character Misadventure in City of Heroes (how I miss that game!) and Aornis Hades (spoilers in link), from Lost in a Good Book. Interesting that both are villains - maybe it's too much of a deux ex to give to the protagonist, but is interesting for them to overcome. Supporting this, the only times I can think of heroes having access to extreme luck is for short periods, such as the luck virus in Red Dwarf, or Felix Felicis in the Harry Potter series.

You can manipulate luck, and black cats and ladders have nothing to do with it. I'm thinking about Blood Bowl, where a good tactic is to force your opponent to rely on luck. You can buy rerolls and use up to one a turn to reroll a failed attempt (or if a ball is bouncing around and the wrong one of your players catches it, a successful attempt), and many skills you give players give them built in rerolls for certain types of skills, that can be use the same way. So when I take halflings to a tournament, I tend not to bother taking rerolls of my own (playing without rerolls takes practice but is worthwhile) and instead take an inducement called the halfling chef, who has the opportunity to remove up to 3 rerolls from your opponent and give up to 3 to you in each half (roll 3d6 during the first kick off of each half, and each 4+ is a reroll given to you and a reroll taken from them - it used to be a stolen reroll, so if you rolled 3 and they only had 2, you only got 2. I prefer the new way!) Immediately, you've manipulated things to fall in your favour, as the likelihood is your opponent is used to relying on those rerolls so their play style will be affected (one reason why learning to play without rerolls is so useful). You can also position your players to force your opponent to make the highest number of dice rolls you can - particularly if you can manipulate it so the types of rolls aren't favourable to them: halflings dodge everywhere on a 3 with a built-in reroll, so forcing them to dodge is less frightening for them than forcing them to block opponents, where their low strength means they'll probably be rolling two dice with the opponent choosing which outcome applies.

You can do it in roleplay games, too, playing to push odds in your favour. You might struggle to hurt a dragon, but creating a dragonbane net may at least snarl it up enough to make it easier not to die in the attempt. Lords of Gossamer and Shadow takes this further, removing the element of luck altogether and encouraging the players to find ways of bringing the odds into their favour.

In real life, we can't remove the element of chance so easily, but we can still stack the odds in our favour, or find the odds stacked towards us by chance. Research has shown that wealthy people are more likely to become more wealthy not because they are greater risk takers but because they have the money to take those risks. My intelligence, creativity and appearance are all quirks of genetics that have nonetheless given me benefits in life, along with being born into a loving, inquisitive family (although that may be tied to the afore mentioned genetic quirks). It spirals too: I got a job I love by the luck of intelligence and knowing the right person (my brother, in this case), but being in a job I love and am good at has helped me gain confidence in my abilities so that I am better able to take opportunities that arise: now I've found a path I'm happy on, I'm manipulating things to keep the luck that got me there flowing.

Optimism and pessimism also come into play. I'm generally considered an optimistic person: for instance, I feel very lucky to have a job with insurance that will cover the cost of me seeing a rheumatologist; I don't feel unlucky to have been born with a condition that requires the visit, or if I do, I do so by focusing on the parts of the condition that I like having - the suppleness, the youthful appearance, the high pain threshold - and still consider myself fortunate. My younger sister is a better example: some of her friends think she's very unlucky because bad things always happen to her but I think she's very lucky because sh's always fine. (She shared that opinion until the parachute accident: she accepts she's lucky to be alive, but the dislocated shoulder had long term repercussions on her career.) My anecdotal experience suggests being optimistic doesn't come from having good luck, but rather the perception of being lucky comes from being optimistic.

Luck is the way random chance falls. You can manipulate it, but never completely eliminate it. It affects you in ways beyond your control but the most important part of whether you are lucky or not is how you see the world.

Thursday 19 May 2016

Show, Don't Tell

When it comes to writing, one of the things I find most difficult is giving information through natural description and action rather than clunky exposition, so thought I'd share my day to try to practice this. Oh, and there is talk of blood and needles, so if that is something you struggle with but you still want to read, stop reading after I get the cat home.

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There was a fox in the front garden when I left my Dad's this morning. I pointed it out to my stepmother.

"It must be for Kieran," she told me. My sister had said her husband would arrive sometime this evening, but I wasn't sure why a fox would be coming to see him.She'd misheard me, thought I'd said 'box'.

He - the fox - visits them often and looked up at me as I passed. I crouched down and extended a hand, though he was too far away to sniff it and seemed disinclined to approach. Healthy looking, he was remarkably calm, not flinching as I moved closer on my way to my car.*

The ride home was lonely, and reaching my flat was worse: no kitty to greet me, and, strangely worse, no litter tray, no food bowls, no toys. Set up my work's laptop, to be greeted with the same frustrating messages as the last time I tried to connect remotely. Tried the fixes we'd suspected last time, to no avail. The IT support department in my company is not great, but the individual support guys in my building as fantastic and tried something else out, but that didn't work either.

The Freeholder's surveyor arrived**. I hovered, nervously, then left him to take measurements. Returned to my laptop. Tried more fixes: still no joy. Still no return call from the IT guys, so popped a quick email with some of my findings and got an email back: he was on a conference call and suspected I needed different software. Could I pop into the office today? Turns out, the software download would take half a day, and I had a blood test shortly so wouldn't have time. Grr.

Went to pick up Cat. She was very pleased to see me, let me pick her up and even leaned into me when I did so! Demanded my sister pet her.

My sister does not like cats at the moment. One of the tests they do when you're pregnant in China (and foreign and paying) that they don't do in Britain is for "that cat parasite" (Toxoplasma gondii). They don't do it in Britain because it gives a false positive about a third of the time, so my sister wasn't too worried at the first result. When the second test came back, she was less happy. The test can pinpoint when you were infected by looking at your IgG levels, which is very cool, so we know my cat's not to blame. And anyway, my sister says, Kitty is more like a dog than a cat. She petted her. Cat calmed. She washed her hands and returned. Cat wanted more petting. She refused.

Even my Dad likes Cat, and he hates cats. She ignored him the first few times they met, but when he was ready to be introduced she came running straight away. She knows how to charm people.

When I dropped her off, she jumped on the utility room work surface and gave her pathetic mew to my stepmum, stood nearest. I said she wanted to be petted, and my stepmum said she (stepmum) would pet her (Cat) once she (Cat) was comfortable but that she'd run away if she (stepmum) tried now - and put her hand out to demonstrate. I smiled as Kitty rubbed her face all over the hand.

The second ride home was less lonely. I had a few scrapes on my wrist where she'd reached for me every time I changed gear or touched the handbrake on our way over, and she was worse on the way back. Whenever I was stopped in traffic, I rested my fingers inside the fretwork of her carry-case door. The first time, she was so desperate to be petted she clawed the back of my hand trying to draw it closer. I snatched it away, and she was more careful after that, but every time if I couldn't feel her breath it was because her fur was pressed against my fingers.

She was delighted to be home, less pleased when I raced straight out for my blood test. 

The nurse greeted me and smiled when she knew I was ok after I, clumsy as ever, attempted to trip myself up as I stood from the plastic waiting room seat. Led me through to her room and explained it was only the coeliac's test they needed to redo, because the lab hadn't done it (which was reassuring, because part of me was worrying that this time they'd managed to find something wrong in that battery of blood tests). A slight scratch - a stronger scratch than most blood tests, but her cheerful demeanour more than compensated for the blood that didn't make it into the needle - and I was done.

I walked home with a pleasant endorphin buzz that led me through the graveyard instead of round it. The cherry blossom was beautiful and I went to take a photo before remembering I have loads of photos looking up at cherry blossom. Could I get a photo looking down? Sadly, neither of the neighbouring trees had limbs in reach for me to climb, so I abandonned the idea and went home: probably for the best, as my lunch hour had been rather a lot longer.

I might not have been able to work on what I'd been intending, but I was determined to do something so Cat spent the afternoon helping me type, from memory, a guide for one bit of software I'm working on. It's full of mistakes and needs screenshots, but it's something that had been put off for lack of time so I don't feel completely useless. I was surprised when Husbit phoned to see if I'd picked up bread - partly because I hadn't noticed we needed any, but mostly because I hadn't realised it was nearly time to finish for the day. 

After dinner, walked over to Bells's to give him a key - he's Cat-sitting next time we're away. You'll know him better as Adam/Hyperdrive or Aaron or Tanna and soon Kito.

Walking back, spotted a couple of guys lounging on grass. Had spotted them on the way over, too, and was half expecting some comment this time - they looked the type, but they stayed quiet. I never know whether to smile when people are sat there looking through you. I smile at most people, so I gave a half smile neither of them saw, but which in my mind was mysterious and would leave them thinking I know something they don't.

Which is probably true. I know the square root of 169 and that 170 doesn't have a rational route and what rational means when applied to numbers. I know Juliet doesn't wonder where Romeo is, but rather why he has to be one of her family's sworn enemies just because of his name: I know Shakespeare should be lived and performed, not studied as a dead text, which is a better knowledge. And I know people love me and care for me, which is the best knowledge of all.

*I saw a fox once as I cycled to work. It was trotting along the pavement, half a chicken carcass in its mouth, and no one else batted an eyelid. It even paused to wait for a car to pull out of a driveway, then carried on as if humans and foxes had always lived a convivial shared existance. I wondered if this was a fox with such a high bluff skill he'd tricked the other humans into thinking he was one of us, but I'd fluked my sense motive.

**I probably didn't need to de-cat the flat: they're a contractor, not the Freeholder themselves, and I'm sort of allowed a cat. It's like this: the Lease says I need Freehold consent for a pet, but they can't unreasonably withhold that consent. The people we bought the flat from took it from someone else who'd applied for that consent, and decided to assume they'd bought the consent along with the Lease, and we made the same cheeky decision because most Freeholders don't mind. Only since then we applied for consent for alterations that also can't be unreasonably withheld and, turns out, the Freeholder's interpretation of 'reasonable' isn't the same as mine, nor (from talking to a friend who's a legal secretary dealing with such things) the legal definition. When I challenged them, the response was "take us to Court and prove it," which we couldn't afford to do and they knew it. 

Thursday 5 May 2016

Firuzeh Samart (Amazon, Hunter, Knitter)

I was sitting, knitting, waiting for a train a year or so ago, and it occurred to me that if I needed to, I could defend myself quite efficiently from the leering and aggressive drunkman eyeing me up from the platform - that my metal knitting needles could be a very deadly weapon in trained hands, yet no one bats an eyelid to my carrying them. And of course needles come in a range of materials, the better to defeat specific demons and monsters - the perfect weapon for a Hunter, in fact! I wanted to build a World of Darkness character in this vein, but neither I nor any nearby friends had a copy of the rulebook. But then I received the Buffy rulebook for Christmas - surely even more perfect, for what is a knitting needle but a very pointy stake?

I had the idea that this woman was an Amazon, a descendant of an ancient order of monster hunters (in my world) who had always treated the genders with equality because you don't fight about something so trivial when you understand the threats the world is facing. I'm not going into loads of detail about the order here, but in my head I've drawn inspiration from real world sources such as found on Wikipedia and stuff, and from fictional sources like the Slayer and the Watcher's Council from Buffy, and the Hunter/Men of Letters deal from Supernatural. I wanted to call her Nancy after Ruth Blackwell of Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, but a quick poll demonstrated not enough people understood the reference so I switched for a name from the region Amazons probably originated, using Behind the Name and Wikipedia as my guides, so maybe not entirely accurately).

Firuzeh was born an Amazon, a monster-killer. She was given as normal a childhood as possible, but has learnt to fight monsters since her teens and how to look for them since infancy. As a young adult, she was expected to track down and deal with minor threats on her own as the group are spread thin across the globe; as she proves herself, her tasks will become more dangerous and she will be responsible for training (and protecting) less experienced Amazons.

She's Islamic - many (but by no means all) Amazons are, converting fluidly as the religion moved through their region. But, like all Amazons, her faith is coloured by the Amazon teaches, giving a distinct flavour to her Islam. She usually wears a head covering because she finds even with her face uncovered people generally see the hijab and not the person, so it acts as a disguise of sorts.

She knits. Knitting provides a good cover for the weapons she uses against the monsters and dark forces she fights - in these days of the internet, you can get or have made knitting needles in almost any metal or wood, making it much easier to carry around that ash stake soaked in lamb's blood (you may need to soak them yourself...) without suspicion. Her complexion in the UK with current moods means she appreciates "without suspicion" (and also explains why currently more than in many centuries female Amazons are far more active than male).

Her first loyalty is to the Amazon order, but she's naturally quick to make friends: people tend to like her because she's strong-willed and sticks up for others, offering kindness where it's needed and rebukes where they're deserved. She travels a lot, but stays in touch with as many of the people she meets as she can: she loves social media.

I did two sets of stats, one for when she's first setting out on her own, maybe with a few other young Amazons on their first missions, and one a bit later when she's had some real experience. In BtVS terms, I've created her as a White Hat and as a Hero.

White Hat:
Attributes: Strength 2, Dexterity 3, Constitution 2, Intelligence 2, Perception 3, Will 3

Skills: Acrobatics 1, Art (knitting) 1, Getting Medieval 2 (stabbing with needles sounds pretty medieval to me), Influence 1, Knowledge 2, Kung Fu 3, Languages 2 (Persian and Scythian), Mr Fix-It 1 (cos it's handy to be able to fix your own stuff on the go), Notice 2 (if you don't see it, you can't defeat it), Occultism 1

Qualities: Contact 2 (Amazon order and various friends: I have one in particular in mind for a future post), Occult Library 1 (hand-copied from an original belonging to her aunt), Situational Awareness 2, Sorcery 1

Drawbacks: Minority -1 (British Muslim), Obligation -1 (Amazon order), Honourable -1

Attributes: Str 3, Dex 4, Con 3, Int 3, Perc 3, Will 4

Skills: Acrobatics 2, Art (knitting) 2, Crime 1 (sometimes you just need to break in), Doctor 1 (cos being able to fix yourself is often useful), Getting Medieval 3, Influence 1, Knowledge 2, Kung Fu 4, Languages 2 (Persian and Scythian), Mr Fix-It 1, Notice 2, Occultism 2

Qualities: Contact 2, Fast Reaction Time 2, Hard to Kill 3, Occult Library 2 (picked up a few extra books; some paper, some e-reader), Situational Awareness 2, Sorcery 2 (practice makes perfect), Natural Toughness 2

Drawbacks: Minority -1 (British Muslim), Obligation -2 (Amazon order: expecting more of her now), Honourable -1, Adversary (incidental) -2 (there's always one that gets away)