Back online

Quite possibly no one noticed but me, but this site has been down since August 2020, when my web hosting service altered the name of their database server.  It should have been a quick fix, and eventually was, but 2020-2021 were such crazy times that I couldn’t set aside the approximate hour I estimated it would take, until yesterday.

The fix came just in time for the blog-aversary of The Mongrel Dogs Who Teach, whose first post was on 2006 June 12 — fifteen years ago, believe it or not!

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FB Recap: Social Media and the Body Politic

originally posted on Facebook on 2018 March 25

Here’s the thing. This week we’ve learned about massive breaches of trust and the evils that the superconnected Internet can bring. But we’ve also seen truly inspiring and uplifting photos that speak to real change — and not only would we never have seen these pictures without social media, the protests and rallies would never have HAPPENED without social media.

Is social media going to save the world? Probably not. Is it going to destroy the world? Probably not.

A sense of history is in order here: After the fascist triumphs of the 1930s, there was a lot of ink spilled about the evils of radio, used by those fascists to whip up the populace. After imbroglios like the Spanish-American War, there was much angst over the power of newspapers. It didn’t take long for the printing press to be decried as the devil’s work.

You know what the common thread was? Some bad actor early adopters managed to grasp the potential of the new medium and used it to spike a fever in the body politic. Then, the body politic developed antibodies — the new and brazen became known and boring, and got worked into the usual order of things. I feel that’s where we are now. So #deleteFacebook if you think it’s important or if the bargain you’ve made with Zuckerberg no longer matches your priorities. But whether you give up or not, social media is now part of our ecosystems … and I honestly believe, that’s not in the end a bad thing.

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FB Recap: Major Tom is Everyman, and That’s the Problem

I’ve liked this song since the 1980s but this has bothered me almost as long:
All systems are go, are you sure?
Control is not convinced
But the computer has the evidence
No need to abort
The implication is, Control should have aborted the mission based on their gut feeling. But if the computers have the evidence, why is Control not convinced? If Control has other evidence, why isn’t it being considered? If there is no other evidence, then Control wasn’t correct, just lucky.
This fits a larger pet peeve of mine, which is that we remain mired (in terms of arts and literature) in an Age of Heroes mentality. It’s the lone actor struggling against the impersonal unfeeling “system”. But in fact, far more tragedies happen because we ignore the evidence than because we follow it. When gut reactions work out, we celebrate it as heroic and when they fail, we say, “Oh, well, sometimes the odds are stacked against you”.
We live in the most interconnected complex society ever, during the most dangerous century ever. Systems, professionals, and procedures may all, admittedly, be faulty.
But we hold as our paragon the people who work around procedures rather than those who try to fix them. Why? I suspect because it lets us off the hook. If the system is irreparable then we’re justified in not exerting ourselves to repair it. If guts trump process, then we have tacit permission to give free rein to our laziness, our proclivities, and our prejudices.
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FB Recap: Sociology of Exponentials

Explaining the socioeconomic tyranny of exponentials, via examples students can relate to: Let’s say kids are given the whole period to complete a lab. Some students work faster than others because they’ve got a better sense of the underlying theory. So they finish early, meaning they can then move on to work on other stuff. Students struggling with the lab don’t get that opportunity, so their other works looms waiting to be done, increasing their stress and likely reducing their capability. So next time, the students who finished early are more likely to finish early AGAIN, and the students who struggled are probably even further behind.
The economy is like that. If you earn more than what you need to survive, you can invest the excess into yourself — maybe a class, maybe just reliable healthcare, maybe things to reduce your stress and enhance your productivity … meaning your earnings will grow even more, even more exceeding the threshold — creating a virtuous cycle.
But if you earn too little, you’ll have to make up the difference by working a second job (blowing through your personal health capital), or taking on debt, or some other mechanism that negatively impacts your productivity … meaning you’ll need even more debt (or whatever), a vicious cycle.
Sure, in real life, there’s a lot of noise there. Your cost of living fluctuates and so does your earning potential Small chance events can put you over the break-even line, or drag you under it. Life is pretty precarious right on that line. But the effects of small bits of luck (good or bad) become massively amplified by this exponential factor. Yeah, it’s possible that you boost your earnings by hard work alone — but once you clear that break-even line, most of the heavy lifting is going to be done by the network effects that create the exponential feedback loop.
I wish I could end this with a simple solution. I don’t have one. But understanding the exponential aspects of life at the break-even leads me to believe, strongly, that we need to flatten out the curve proactively.
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FB Recap: Privilege in Back to the Future

Growing up gives you a perspective that can ruin all the good things of your childhood. I’m going to comment on Back to the Future here, so if that’s an integral pillar of /your/ childhood, you might want to skip.
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FB Recap: Seal and Eagle

Interesting socio-cultural question: In this cover of “Fly Like an Eagle”, Seals sings “I want to fly like an eagle” but omits “till I’m free”, and changes “through the revolution” to “into the future”.
These aren’t accidental changes — I wonder what prompted him and what does it say about the times in which the songs were released (1996 versus 1976). Or… was it because Seal’s version was for a major studio film (Space Jam, believe it or not) and the corporate overlords would brook no mention of the revolution?
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Facebook recaps

As usual, I told myself all Spring Break that I should be writing more.  Then I realized that I output a noticeable amount of musings, rants, and thoughts — not a flood, but at least a trickle — on Facebook and other social media.  I’m going to go through and pull out the longer or (in my opinion) more noteworthy posts and repost them here on Mongrel Dogs.  Because self-plagiarism is by far the best kind of plagiarism.

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Books 2020


Paris at the End of the World




Working Futures

Bridge of Spies

Redemption Falls

The Secret Lives of the US Presidents

This is How You Lose the Time War

Cities: The First 6000 Years

World War Z


A Brightness Long Ago (re-read)

The Consuming Fire (re-read)

The Last Emperox

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol 1: Vader (graphic novel)

The Diamond Age (re-read)

Murderbot 1: All Systems Read

Murderbot 2: Artificial Condition

A Memory Called Empire

The Invisible Hook

Target: Vader (graphic novel)

Renaissance Diplomacy


Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

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Meh the Force Be With You: Review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Spoilers for the final chapter in the Star Wars Saga.

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Cursed Items in D&D: Why I don’t like them; how I intend to use them differently

A time-honored mechanic in Dungeons & Dragons is the cursed item: A ring, or armor, or what-have-you, that — when a player character wears or uses the item — activates a bane.  Usually, the item cannot be removed once the curse is revealed; usually, the curse cannot be determined before use even via things like the identify spell.  The effects can be large or small, baleful or (allegedly) humorous.  I’d already decided not to use these sorts of items in my (eternally-delayed) Three Musketeers campaign.  My decision wasn’t motivated by recently acquiring a cursed item for a PC I’m playing (honest!), but I hadn’t really worked through my antipathy.  This is my attempt to get a handle on why I dislike them so much and how to access the flavor without adopting the mechanic.

I’m no historian of D&D, but it seems to me that cursed items as written are a relic of what I like to call the Jerk Age of D&D. Early in the game, the relationship between dungeon master and players was antagonistic. The role of the DM was to throw obstacles in the PCs’ path, and the role of PCs was to confound the DM and undo his* plans. (* In the early days of D&D, the demographics were overwhelmingly male.) The metagame was to show off how smart, well-read, and ruthless you were: Thus, vast and convoluted rules that interacted in weird ways, and giant compendia of weapons and spells and monsters. (D&D could well have been named Tabular Data: The Game — although it really didn’t hold a candle to Rolemaster in that regard. But that’s grist for a different article.) Although rarely explicitly stated, the orientation D&D was DM versus the players. In that mindset, cursed items make sense and fit naturally. If you doubt me, read descriptions from, say, the AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. Dripping from each paragraph is the malign glee the writers felt picturing the hapless helplessness of the players who suffer the items.

It’s a mistake to think there’s only one style of D&D or one set of motivations. But 5th Edition has definitely moved more toward story telling and collaborative world-building. I would argue that this, as much as the simplification of the rules, underlies the resurgence of the game’s popularity in recent years. But in this new framework, cursed items as typically deployed don’t really fit. They remain a mechanism to punish characters, often for the “sin” of wanting to improve. It might be argued that they’re meant to chastise players for being too greedy or ambitious, but in a world where the GM routinely dispenses copious rewards for players acting a certain way, it’s simply mean and counterproductive to then “punish” players for exactly the same actions.

The greatest failing of cursed items, though, is that they work against the main draw of role-playing games (as I see it, at least): They rob players of agency. Though technically they do activate as a response to a player action, they don’t really activate as a response to a player’s choice. Of course, there’s the trivial sense of choice in that the player chooses to put on the ring or whatever. But because they are designed to camouflage their nature, cursed items rob the player of genuine choice. If 19 out of 20 rings are beneficial or harmless, it’s a strange moral economy that dictates you avoid all rings because one might be cursed.

For classic cursed items, there is a choice and there are consequences — but, except in the most trivial way, those consequences are unrelated to the scope of the choice. The cost is immediate and non-negotiable, made in a moment and carried forward indefinitely. Almost always, in fact, the cursed item conveys no benefit whatsoever. You can tell the mechanic is broken because almost every curse ends up having to enforce its terms arbitrarily: The player simply can’t rid themselves of the item, even though they instantly want to. Why not? Because the rules say so — somehow, the universe rewires itself so that you can’t drop the item.

Compare that to the best cursed items in world literature. Perhaps the best is the One Ring. It bestows a real advantage — invisibility to mortal eyes. But it carries a curse: It sings out to Ring Wraiths, drawing the attention of the more dire opponents in Middle Earth. Just carrying the Ring endangers one; using it is much worse. Yet Frodo doesn’t throw it away, although he certainly could have. (Well, any time before reaching Mount Doom, I suppose.) He keeps the cursed item for a reason, not because Tolkein just mandated “Frodo can’t get rid of it”.

So, how to “fix” cursed items?  Make them plot-relevant.  Make them useful.  Make them exact real costs, not metagame-mandated costs.  They should confer real benefits, reasons why a rational person might keep an item even though it’s dangerous.    This forces the players to balance the benefit against the cost.  Looking over all the best fantasies stories, almost all memorable climaxes involve the hero having to make a sacrifice.  Use the cursed item as the mechanic for that.

The mildest cases might involve minor personal sacrifice. Maybe the ring gives advantage on, say, lore checks but does 1 HP of psychic damage every time it’s used. A sword might be fantastic in combat but “jealous”, working only if the bearer discards all other weapons. A ring of feather fall that saves your life when you tumble into the chasm but saddles you with two or three levels of exhaustion.

Or the circumstances might be more fraught. Perhaps the traveling cloak makes arduous journeys simple, but slowly blights any area where it remains too long. Perhaps a rod of healing cures all ailments but only at the cost of someone else’s lifeforce. Maybe the scrying helmet pierces all veils but occasionally consumes the eyes of its user. Maybe the sword that can vanquish the Big Bad demands the sacrifice of an innocent. Force the players to make choices so that the item carries narrative import.

Put simply, items shouldn’t be cursed for the sake of being cursed and certainly they shouldn’t be cursed for the sake of impairing PCs. Their curse should flow naturally from the story and should contribute back to it.

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