The Roundup for July 1-13, 2019 Edition

(Skydancers by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


For the past few weeks I’ve been running a group of players through the Dungeons and Dragons adventure Princes of the Apocolypse and while, on the one hand, it’s been a lot of fun I’m having to make a lot of adjustments to get the adventure properly started. Specifically, I’m fixing the way that the adventure absolutely fails to really foreshadow things. This lack is a serious problem in my opinion; the players don’t really get exposure to the different weird cults, the power organizations’ members (e.g., Harpers or Zhentarim), or other mysteries in an organic fashion: instead, DMs are tasked with dumping a lot of information on the players in (to my eye) awkward and blunt ways. Making things worse, the major ‘hook’ in the adventure — the travelling troupe from Mirabar — just comes out of nowhere, with the PCs not really appreciating the group’s significance or reasons for why the PCs should really care.1

To address some of these limitations, I started my players in Neverwinter and as a part of an adventuring society, ‘The Order of Three Feathers.’ After meeting with the heads of their society and, also, organically receiving a few early adventuring hooks the PCs went off to the region to investigate bizarre occurrences. On their trip I dropped in the Starsong Tower adventure, with modifications: a hill arose near them during the night, with light being emitted from a crack in the side. Within, they found a lost fortress of Lathander (God of the Rising Dawn) which had been discovered, and converted, by members of the Cult of the Eternal Flame. My modifications mostly just entailed rescinding the adventure, and replacing Savrin (the spectre) with Savrin (a Flame Guardian). All of the cult members were, also, members of the Bronze Lions adventuring party: I intend, later on, to use this enemy adventuring party as a kind of band of hunters, who will seek to disrupt the PCs and other cults. Also, the dead adventurer carrying the wand of mending turned out to be a Harper agent (denoted by a Harp pin on the body) who was working in service of the Culture of the Crushing Wave.

Before the PCs start into the Feathergate Spire adventure, where they’ll run across yet another cult, I’ll be exposing them a little more symbology surrounding the Elder Elemental Eye so they’ll be keyed to watch for, and be mindful of, its symbol in relation to any of the cult symbols. The goal of all the foreshadowing is to organically make the later information the PCs collect be more understandable. As the module is written, at least to my eye, the players are expected to make pretty wild jumps to link all the groups and clues; hopefully the early additions (and frequent little notes and such I plan to add throughout the sessions) will help to reveal the actual plot and transform a principally dungeon-crawl game into something that’s more dramatic and epic from a storytelling perspective.

 


Inspiring Quotation

“The simple act of paying attention can take you a long way.”

— Keanu Reeves

Great Photography Shots

Paul Johnson’s work, showcased at Colossal, reveals the power of water and its ability to transform lands and spaces humans have terraformed and built upon.

Music I’m Digging

It turns out that I liked a lot more songs in June than I’d expected. The 53 songs bias towards rock, rap, and pop, and are from about a decade and a half or so of different albums. I’d totally forgotten about Bran Van 3000’s “Drinking in L.A.”!

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • The Agenda – The Problem with Plastics // This robust discussion engages with the benefits brought by plastics—massive reductions in food waste and other efficiencies are often discounted in speaking about the environmental harms linked with plastics—while also striking down some of the optimism about perfectly reusing or recycling plastics. I was shocked to hear that plastics use is only expected to reach an equilibrium by 2050 at the earliest; we’re going to get a lot more of this in our environment before we even consider reducing the actual amounts used on a daily basis.
  • Cyber – How Google Tracks Hackers // Ever wanted to know how Google thinks about, and responds to, the threats facing the company and its customers? This short podcast very nicely explains the rationales behind some of the company’s decisions and, also, how much the different threat intelligence companies privately communicate with one another to better understand the global threat landscapes.
  • Wag the Doug – How To Promote Friends And Alienate People // It’s incredibly frustrating to learn just how corrupt the current Ontario provincial government is behaving, and made that much worse by realizing how incompetent the people receiving the patronage appointments are for their allotted positions.
  • Lawfare – Mike O’Hanlon on the ‘Senkaku Paradox’ // This interview’s one of the eeriest I’ve listened to in a very long while. O’Hanlon provides a detailed rationale for why asymmetric consequences are suitable when or if adversaries seize territory that is strategically insignificant but demands a response due to either NATO or other mutual defense agreements. The thrust of the argument is that the West, and in particular the nuclear-armed Powers, need to find a way of possessing a gradual and significant escalation ladder that reduces risks of unexpected and potentially lethal escalation. If you think about kinetic, cyber, and diplomatic national security tools then this is a podcast that should be on your must-listen list: you’ll probably learn a lot and walk away unsettled about just how confused and confusing the escalation ladders amongst regional and world powers are currently.

Good Reads

  • The Hero Who Betrayed His Country // Weiss’ article on how an Estonian solider—an ethnic Russian who was a firm proponent of post-USSR Estonia—was turned by Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) and subsequently exposed information to Russian handlers over an extensive period of time is instructive of how contemporary efforts to recruit agents isn’t really all that different from the Cold War era. Many of the tactics and efforts that worked fifty years ago still to work, and speak to how human intelligence officers continue to prey off common flaws, weaknesses, and fears latent in a wide spectrum of the population.
  • What Does Putin Really Want? // Commentators often attempt to put the Russian government’s actions over the past few decades into a broader strategic context to grasp the goals of its leaders. Topol argues that Russia’s activities are best understood as a state opportunistically reacting to American withdrawals as opposed to attempts to force its way into the international stage. While there are elements of the argument that are certainly less robust, it does provide a reasonable and pragmatic argument to explain the Russian government’s activities as opposed to flights of fancy based on presumptions of Russian tactical genius.
  • Homeward Bound // Without a doubt, this is one of the more beautiful pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. It focuses on the process of bringing rescues from the American South and up to New England. Throughout it, the strength and compassion of the protagonist, Heather Hobby, shines through, as does her absolute love for the animals she saves. And if by the end of the article you’re not in love with Tink then something’s probably wrong with you.

Cool Things

  1. Also: how are they supposed to really care about rescuing them when I can’t figure out why the hell they should care?
Aside

2019.7.10

For the past few weeks, my iPhone has been randomly slowing down at different times. Specifically, applications have just stopped responding for 20-45 seconds, and continue to stutter along after recovering somewhat. My suspicion is that the behaviour is linked to either Instagram or the native Podcasts app based on what I’ve read online, but that’s pure supposition. Regardless, I did a total factory refresh of my decide and so far all the stutters are gone. Here’s hoping they stay away in perpetuity…

The Roundup for June 24-30, 2019 Edition

(Paradise? by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


When I first really realized that I liked photography, it was while I was using the Fuji X100. The experience of shooting with it was really special but, unfortunately, I had to sell it during some unpleasant financial times. In its stead, I picked up (and have extensively used) a Sony RX100M2 and, later, an Olympus EM10ii. I’m a huge fan of both of those cameras, and I’ve been forcing myself to learn manual shooting (in black and white) with the RX100M2 over the past few months.

But…despite the fact that I’m really happy with how my photography has developed over the past year or so, I keep lusting for another Fuji camera. I’d like to imagine that the reason is I want to enjoy the colours of the Fuji line. I’m sure that’s (almost!) true! But, really, I think it’s more that I appreciated the aesthetics of the X100, that I disliked the reason and rationale for having to get rid of something that I loved, and that the idea of constraints in photography appeal to me.

So, what has me burning tens-of-hours per week on looking at cameras? It’s mostly associated with thinking if I want to get a X100S or X100T or X100F, or instead shift over to getting something like the Fuji X-Pro 1 (or even, perhaps, the X-T1) and a 50mm equivalent lens. I really like the idea of spending a lot of time shooting manual at 50mm, as 35mm just hasn’t ever come naturally to me. But the Fuji camera that I fell in love with was the X100…and so a rangefinder-style body is definitely what I really want to have on my shelf…

At the same time, I’m wondering if I should just hold out and either see if the next iteration of the X100 line comes with weather sealing, or if I should instead wait until there’s something interesting from Olympus, or just invest all of the money I’d dump into a Fuji system into some new 50mm equivalent glass for the M4/3 system…


Inspiring Quotation

“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Great Photography Shots

This work by Greg Girard (posted at My Modern Met) is just…wow…In his series of shots taken in the 1970s and early 1980s, Tokyo looks like Blade Runner or other truly classic science fiction movie or as described by the sci-fi authors of the time.

Music I’m Digging

I’m really loving Thom Yorke’s Essentials playlist from Apple Music.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • OPPO – You Have No Constitutional Right To An Abortion // The two topics of the show — abortion rights in Canada and the Liberal government taking credit for being advocates of homosexual rights — are really well covered. Gerson’s assessment of the laws and politics around abortion in Canada was useful for dispelling a lot of the myths around what can, and can’t, be done to a fetus in Canada, and Ling has a good critical analysis of the federal Liberals’ actual work to support gay rights. OPPO is typically crazy solid in what they assess, and this episode is no exception.

Good Reads

  • What I Learned Trying To Secure Congressional Campaigns // Without a doubt, this article is one of the most exceptional pieces of practical advice on developing security training that I’ve come across in several years. It’s filled with good, accessible, explanations of what is possible, what works, and what is impossible or doesn’t work, when attempting to provide practical security advice to political parties or campaigns.
  • Hypersonic Missiles Are Unstoppable. And They’re Starting a New Global Arms Race. // Smith’s long form article in the New York Times Magazine makes clear that the research being into hypersonic weapons, absent serious diplomatic engagement to establish terms on their (non-)use, could potentially amplify the international risks associated with great-power conflicts. Such weapons could render much of America’s existing military infrastructure moot in a war fighting situation, where great powers were actively seeking to disable one another’s core land- and sea-based military infrastructure. To put it in perspective: Russia might strike at the Pentagon with only five minutes warning, or China at Guam in under ten minutes, the or USA at China’s inland missile bases in ten to fifteen minutes.

Cool Things

  • House DZ // This is a beautiful piece of minimalist architecture.
Aside

2019.6.26

Unpopular position: the rave reviews of meatless (i.e., plant-based) burgers are largely linked to the fact that most people have been eating low-quality hamburgers. I had some recently and they were tasty…so long as I didn’t consider them in comparison to mediocre homemade burgers, or good restaurant-quality (non-fast food) burgers. Do I think they have a place in the marketplace? Definitely. A perfect replacement? No way.

Playlists for the Lost Mines of Phandelver

(Roll for Initiative by Christopher Parsons)

I’ve now run the Dungeons and Dragons starter set, Lost Mines of Phandelver, for two separate groups. In both cases, the players were entirely new to 5th edition D&D; in the second case, none of the players had played a tabletop role playing game before, let alone D&D. In both cases, I spent a lot of time both doing some unique quest preparation—building out encounters that I thought would enhance the campaign as it unfolded for the relevant groups—as well as developing extensive playlists for the games.

All of my music is organized around Apple Music, and largely derived from my Dungeons and Dragons — Master List playlist. The following list outlines the different playlists that I used; feel free to adopt them for your own play through of the Lost Mines of Phandelver, or for any other adventures that you may be running!

I’m generally a massive fan of playing music while running the game; I find that customizing the music has a useful effect of helping me get into the mood, to say nothing of it working to enhance my players’ experiences. And in the case of new players, in particular, I’ve always found that adding music really helps to transport them into the world in ways that are almost unparalleled!

The Roundup for May 21-June 22, 2019 Edition

(Tap! by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


So Apple has announced all the big changes forthcoming in iOS 13. While lots are great and exciting, the update still won’t bring baseline feature parity between MacOS and iOS core applications. The result is that serious users of consumer MacOS applications can’t fully transition to iOS or iPadOS. What’re just two baseline things that are missing, from my self-interested perspective?

1. Smart lists in Apple Music & Apple Photos

I get that smart lists may not be everyone’s deal, but self updating lists are pretty important in how I manage and organize data. To give an example, I use smart lists in Photos to determine what camera I used to take which photo. Does this matter for lots of people? Probably not, now that smartphones have colonized the photography business. But for someone like me who wants to know such metadata, the absence of it is noticeable.

2. Detailed information about photographs in Apple Photos

I don’t know why, it you can’t check aperture, shutter speeds ISO, or other basic camera features in Apple Photos, in iOS 12 or 13. Nor can you create a title for a photograph. Again, as someone who takes tens of thousands of photos a year, and reviews them all to select a rarified thousand or two ‘keepers’ each year and titles many of those kept, I really want to record titles.1 And it drives me nuts that I can’t.

I get that there are a lot of pretty amazing things coming in iOS 13. But can’t these pretty table-stakes things come along? These aren’t ‘Pro’ features: there’re the baseline features that have been available on consumer apps in MacOS for years. You shouldn’t need to own and use a Mac to enjoy these capabilities.


Inspiring Quotation

“Society is not some grand abstraction, my friends. It’s just us. It’s the words we use, which are the thoughts we have, which determine the actions we take.”

– Umair Haque

Great Photography Shots

I really appreciate some of the great shadows that come out in these shots over at Mobiography.

(‘lines and shadows‘ by @arpixa)
(‘Shadow casting‘ by @poetry fish)
(‘Untitled‘ by @lasina)
(‘On the dark side‘ by @jawdoc2)
(‘ RED ‘ by @dviviano)
(‘high light reverie‘ by @chasread)

Music I’m Digging

Having figured out the problem of songs not being added to my ‘Songs I Love’ lists, my monthly lists are going to be a lot more expansive than those in the past. My May 2019 list clocks in at around 5 ½ hours, with a mix of hip-hop, rap, pop, and a bit of alternative and rock.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Lawfare – Avril Haines, Eric Rosenbach, and David Sanger on U.S. Offensive Cyber Operations // This is an insightful, and nuanced, consideration of the equities which are taken into account when the United States engages in different classes of cyber operations. While the title of the podcast is focused on offensive cyber activities, the same logics can clearly be applied to defensive activities such as those linked with vulnerabilities equities processes or development of activities intended to mitigate harms emitted from foreign adversaries.
  • Lawfare – Jim Scuitto on ‘The Shadow War’ // While Scuitto doesn’t necessarily talk about anything excitingly novel in the summary of his book, he does an absolutely terrific job in summarizing the high-level threats to American (and, by extension, Canadian and Western) national security. From submarine threats, to space threats, to cyber, the threat landscape is remarkably different today as compared to twenty years ago. In terms of responses or solutions, key to the American approach is reconsidering and re-engineering the responses to aggressive actions. Clearly American responses have failed to dissuade actors such as Russia and China in certain spheres, such as aggressive military engagement and cyber espionage and propaganda, and so more directed cyber-based activities meant to expose the corruption of foreign leaders might represent the next logical step for the U.S. military establishment.

Good Reads

  • When the Hard Rains Fall // Welsh has done a terrific job in both outlining the policy and financial and scientific causes that lead to serious, and dangerous, flooding in Toronto while marrying it with superb storytelling. Not only does the article provide a huge amount of information in an impeccably understandable format, but the graphics that accompany the piece in certain sections are almost certain to elicit an emotional reaction. Stories like this demonstrate why it’s important to pay for investigative reporting, while also showcasing how contemporary technologies can improve narratives for clarity and impact.
  • ‘Botanical Sexism’ Could Be Behind Your Seasonal Allergies // In an ironic turn, when trees were routinely planted in urban environments in the 1960s, males of the various species were chosen on the basis that they wouldn’t promote litter by dropping seeds. However, these trees expel significant amounts of pollen which has had the effect of creating ‘pollenpocalypse’ events that both severely aggravate seasonal allergies and leave vast swathes of pollen coating the city.
  • Female Spies and Their Secrets // As in so many fields, women’s contributions to the intelligence and security services were largely erased from history as men replaced them. However, newly recovered and disclosed histories are showcasing the role(s) that women played throughout the second world war to lead underground resistances and otherwise facilitate Allied intelligence efforts.
  • Your threat model is wrong // Robert Graham’s abrasive and direct writing is refreshing, especially when he writes about phishing: “Yes, it’s amazing how easily stupid employees are tricked by the most obvious of phishing messages, and you want to point and laugh at them. But frankly, you want the idiot employees doing this. The more obvious phishing attempts are the least harmful and a good test of the rest of your security — which should be based on the assumption that users will frequently fall for phishing.”
  • After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown // In the United States, some big box stores are attempting to (and succeeding in) reduce their property tax bills by arguing their stores should be valued at millions of dollars less than their current valuation. The result is that small towns, many of which invested in significant infrastructure projects to lure these stores, are at risk of having to reduce their services or defer additional investments that are less-focused on the company in question. Activities like this, combined with the general massive reduction in corporate taxes following the US government’s taxation changes under President Trump, threaten the very ability of small and large towns and cities to invest in infrastructure for the betterment of their residents.
  • The Secret to This Brazilian Coffee? Ants Harvest the Beans // In another instance of how weird and amazing the ecosystems of the earth are, ants that have inhabited an organic coffee farm in Brasil are affecting the taste of the beans in the process of removing the fruit around the beans to feed to their young. Apparently, this has effects on the acidity and taste of certain stronefruits, while also showcasing the interdependence of organic beings in the same ecosystem.
  • How To Make A Relationship Last // The guidance in this piece spoke to me, and reflect how I personally view long- term relationships and choice. Cage nicely summarizes that challenges of continuously choosing to stay in love, and in doing so provides a good set of instructions for others to follow and innovate upon.
  • How To Be A Leader — For Someone Who Hasn’t Been A Leader Before// This is really, really good and quick advice for someone who holds a leadership role, or is about to assume one. They key bits that stuck out include: put others before yourself, act as a role model instead of a boss, and be transparent about where you have weaknesses and work with your team to make sure they’re covered off. In effect, leadership under this model involves being humble, supportive, and aware of the need to improve the life and lots of your team.

Cool Things

  1. Ok, what I really want is to be able to add a title to a photo in Apple Photos on iOS, and then when I export the photo to, say, Instagram for the title to be automatically updated. But I realize I shouldn’t dream of such ‘exceptional’ capabilities and so will settle for adding titles manually in iOS and Instagram. Like an animal.
Gallery

Black and White, Compacted

I’ve been spending a lot of time seriously reacquainting myself with my Sony rx100m2. This is an older camera at this point, but I’ve made a decision that I exclusively shoot black and white on it, and this is the camera that is (almost) always with me. I’m basically forcing myself to actually shoot black and white, as opposed to adding black and white filters to colour photos. It means some colour shots are probably “lost” but, at the same time, a whole pile of amazing shots (to my eye) are being captured because I’m learning a whole new way of seeing the world.

Below are some of the happier results of this experiment; I can definitely see a future where I print out a pile of these types of photos to put up around my office or home.

The Race! by Christoper Parsons
Stand! by Christopher Parsons
Home by Christopher Parsons
The Spot by Christopher Parsons
Trapped by Christopher Parsons
Apparition by Christopher Parsons