Sunday, 21 November 2010

Lords of the West: Update 3

As many of you probably know, if you follow the Gloranthan mailing lists, my Facebook page, and so on, progress on Lords of the West has definitely been picking up recently.

Having said that, I should begin by saying that I have, as yet, no further news on LotW2: Kingdom of the Flamesword. It has a publisher, but no release date or further information. There is no reason to suppose this won't happen at some point, but for the moment, you'll just have to wait.

Progress on the Jonatela material that could potentially have formed LotW4 is slow but steady. The material currently available at my website deals with the more mundane aspects of Jonating life, the workings of the government, and what can laughingly be called the justice system. Obviously, Jonatela is not a very nice place, especially if you're a peasant, and this inevitably colours the material, but it's still enjoyable to write, so I'll keep on doing it. This background stuff will soon be finished, and I'll then move on to starting to compile a gazetteer of interesting places to visit across the kingdom, emphasising some of its magical power as well as its murky peril.

But what's really cool, of course, is the news about The Book of Glorious Joy, which incorporates bits of LotW1 with most of LotW3. As you can see, the cover has been completed - and a very fine piece of work it is, too, showing a valiant Loskalmi wizard-knight charging through a dark and chilly landscape so typical of many parts of Fronela. The interior artwork is well under way, and you can see a sample at the d101 Games product page. Proofing and editing are all completed, and the publisher is aiming at a release in January or February. As always, these dates can slip, but in this case, I doubt it will be by very much.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

TAM London 2010 - Squeee!

That was a geeky "squeee", of course. And, uh, a manly one, as well. Obviously...

So, I've just returned from the second Amaz!ng Meeting to be held in London, this time in the swanky environs of the London Hilton Metropole. This year the event was even bigger than last, with close to a thousand people attending, and an even more packed program. As a meeting of pro-science and pro-rationality types, I don't think it can be beaten; it really is quite remarkable.

The line-up for this year was pretty stellar, with some familiar from the world of science, some from entertainment, and a few who are, perhaps, a little less well known, at least outside skeptical circles.

The first talk was one of the best, with Susan Blackmore talking about her long journey on the road from firm believer in the paranormal to skeptic. I'd never actually seen her in person before, although I've read her autobiography (still on my bookshelf, indeed). That's largely because she hasn't been involved in skeptical work for the last decade or so, and its great to see such an engaging speaker back. The talk, like her autobiography, very much gave the impression that she was someone who really wanted to believe in psychic powers, and dedicated much of her life to trying to prove their existence, but was just too good an experimental scientist to find evidence that just wasn't there.

She was followed by the great Richard Dawkins, giving a speech about how the study of evolution should be as central to modern education as Classics was in days gone by. Perhaps over-egging the pudding a little bit, but the main point is a valid one: evolution is such an important concept that it impinges on almost every field of study in some way.

Cory Doctorow spoke on copyright and how the current systems of enforcing it are threatened by the internet. This is, he explained, much the same as the music industry back at the turn of the last century trying to shut down the production of phonographs on the grounds of copyright (since at the time, musicians made their money by collecting royalties from sheet music). Obviously, that one didn't work so well, and one can see something similar in Viacom's recent attempts (also so far unsuccessful) to effectively close down YouTube. Doctorow's solution seems to me a perfectly reasonable one, and it may well be that the music and video industries will eventually be forced to accept something much like it. It's as much a colossal waste of time and money for them to do otherwise as it is a pain to everyone else, and perhaps they'll eventually work that one out.

Adam Rutherford talked about the Alpha Course and its rather scary links to Christian fundamentalism, homophobia, and so on. In a similar vein, Paula King talked about the Christian Party, which is rather more openly zealous and, frankly, quite unpleasant. Now, it's true that the Christian Party has absolutely naff all chance of being elected to Parliament even under a PR system, let alone the one we've got - or the relatively minor voting reform that the Coalition is likely to propose, for that matter. But these are organised groups that can do lobbying, and that, in itself, is a worrying thought.

Also, on the first day we had a couple of awards being given out for great achievements in UK skepticism. This year they went, deservedly, to Ben Goldacre and Rhys Morgan.

In the evening, we had entertainment from the Amateur Transplants (check out, for example, this homage to Tom Lehrer's Elements Song), Simon Cox, and, of course, the superb Tim Minchin, who was premiering the animated version of his poem "Storm", which I may have mentioned before. To be honest, there was a bit too much waffle about the animation process at the end of the evening's entertainment, but all the songs Tim played were new to me, at least, and all very good in different ways. If I had to pick one of the three, though, I'd go for "Cont", for sheer cleverness.

And that was just the first day! The best talk on the second day was also the first one, and the one that focused most clearly on science, which seemed to have a slightly lower profile this year than last. This was given by Marcus Chown, on the subject of "ten reasons why the universe is bonkers" - you can find three of the reasons at the bottom of the list on this page. It was a great talk, with nice visuals on the power of space science.

Also on the second day, DJ Grothe gave a talk on the ideals of TAM's organisers, the JREF, a panel on use of new internet technology to spread the word, and an interview with the man for whom the very meeting is sort-of-named: James "the Amazing" Randi. He hadn't been able to attend the previous year, due to health issues, but he seemed remarkably spry and energetic this time round, and came across as a quite remarkable man.

And then there was PZ Myers, who has often been accused of taking an overly strident tone on his blog. I don't think I agreed with everything he said, but I certainly agree with his general sentiment that some things you just have to get angry about. On the other hand, I have to say that while I personally found Melinda Gebbie's talk on feminist pornography interesting, I appear to have been in something of a minority (among the men, anyway), and I actually do agree that it seemed rather out of place. All very well, yes, but what's it doing here? Stephen Fry also gave an interview, albeit by video link, which was quite wide-ranging. Alan Moore finished off the day, and seemed rather more popular - some interesting thoughts on how our geographic environment affects us, but I could have done without the poem on the psychogeography of Northampton. Maybe that's just me, though.

So, perhaps not perfect, but a very enjoyable weekend overall, with time for getting to know other people in between the talks. The food was better this time, too, which doubtless comes from using the Hilton as a venue. All credit to the organisers for pulling off what was really quite a large meeting.

I'll be going again next year!

Addendum: One thing that didn't help was the massive disruption on the Underground this weekend. So, in honour of London Transport, here's another song from the Amateur Transplants. (Warning: strong language).

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Triceratops Really Did Exist Shocker!

Yes, folks, the famous three-horned dinosaur Triceratops did, in fact, actually exist.

I can tell you're shocked. Because you wouldn't know it, if all you had to go on was this article.

The short story is that it turns out that the skeletons we know as Triceratops were (probably) immature versions of a rather similar beast named Torosaurus. As Triceratops aged, the shape of their frills and horns changed, until they ended up looking like the animal we previously called Torosaurus. The two "different" dinosaurs are, in fact, the same thing - it's just that one is older.

The question is, if the two are the same animal, what do we call it? After all, you can't go around calling the same thing by two different names, at least not if you need to be scientifically precise. One of the two existing names has to be the official name, and the other must be "wrong" (or, at least, out-dated). But which is which? The gizmodo article linked above is quite clear about the answer: Triceratops never existed, and from now on we all have to call them "Torosaurus" instead. This is, to be blunt, utter bollocks.

Gizmodo got its story from an earlier version at boing-boing. You'll note that the writer of that piece has the honesty to say that he doesn't know which of the two names is now the correct one. The gizmodo writer obviously leapt to the conclusion that would give the most dramatic headline, and continued from there, without bothering to check further. This sort of thing is, sadly, not unusual in journalistic reporting of science stories.

The boing-boing writer may be honest, but he doesn't get off the hook, either. He got his story from a New Scientist article here, but he either didn't read it all, or didn't understand it. Because they got it 90% right: "Torosaurus will now be abolished as a species and specimens reassigned to Triceratops". The only bit wrong in that sentence is that Torosaurus is not, and never was, a species - it's a genus, or group of closely related species.

Tracing this tale of Chinese whispers even further, we find the original paper that sparked it all off, which is here. Okay, so you can't read the full article without putting up some money, but the title makes it all pretty obvious - and is the exact opposite of the gizmodo article. But "Torosaurus never existed, it was just an older version of Triceratops" sounds less sexy than what they came up with, and who cares about the facts? Even if I hadn't already known that it wasn't true (and, more importantly, why - which I'll get on to in a minute), it wouldn't have taken me more than a mouse click and a couple of minutes reading to find out.

So you can't believe everything you read on the internet. Who'd have thought, eh?

I suspect this 100% reversal of the story may have something to do with the fact that, superficially, it sounds plausible. If scientists can decide that Pluto is no longer a planet, why mightn't they decide that something else we're very familiar with isn't real either? Indeed, it wouldn't be the first time. The name Brontosaurus really did bite the dust, and those animals were re-assigned to the genus Apatosaurus, which is now the official name of the beasts we all used to call "brontosaurs". And, let's be honest, brontosaurs were well up there among the list of best-known dinosaurs, just as Triceratops is. Chances are, only Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus are likely to come close in terms of public familiarity.

Now, if your favourite dinosaur was, in fact, Torosaurus (fairly unlikely, I know), you are out of luck. That name has, as the New Scientist and JVP articles make clear, genuinely been given the boot. Or, at least, it will be if this study is properly confirmed and agreed to be correct - which, by the looks of things, it probably will be.

So, why is it that way round? It obviously isn't because of simple common sense, or Brontosaurus would still be with us.

The rules on how animals get their scientific names are laid down by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. These include, among other things, a rule on what to do when two animals you previously thought were different turn out to be the same. And it's quite a simple rule: you pick whichever name is the oldest.

This can, it must be said, sometimes produce some odd results. Sometimes the older name turns out to be more obscure than the newer one. Presumably, you didn't find very many specimens of the animal you gave the older name to, or they just weren't very good specimens (which might explain why you didn't realise that the newer one was the same thing). This is, more or less, what happened to Brontosaurus.

But the first scientific description and naming of Triceratops was in 1889, a full two years before Torosaurus in 1891. As it happens, they were discovered by the same man - the famous American palaeontologist O.C. Marsh; but that's by-the-by, and its hardly surprising that he thought they were different. The point is that Triceratops is the older name, and it therefore has to be the one that's kept.

You wouldn't be allowed to have it the other way round even if you wanted to. Triceratops is real. Them's the rules.

(Top picture is of Triceratops, lower one is of Torosaurus. Both from Wikimedia Commons.)

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Lords of the West: Update 2

I thought I'd post an update to clarify exactly what is happening with the Lords of the West books. As most of you probably already know, the books will no longer be published by Moon Design, but have been taken up by other publishers. One of those publishers has not made a formal announcement yet (that I know of), although it's probably not desperately hard to work out who it is! So, to summarise what has been announced:

The Book of Glorious Joy
This will be published by d101 Games, and will be a bumper volume including most of the material from both LotW1: Heroes of Malkion and LotW3, the book that would have covered Loskalm. We're working to make it self-contained, although many of the cults from LotW1 will lack detailed descriptions or rules sections, since a "book of cults" wasn't considered very desirable. There is no definite release date for the book as yet, although we're hoping to have it out by the end of the year, and work is already underway on art and layout.

One chapter of LotW3 has, in fact, already been published. It is available in Hearts of Glorantha #4, available from d101 Games via This is the chapter covering Junora (which does, unfortunately, to some extent make reference to the as yet unpublished remaining chapters). It is graced by some wonderful artwork by Peter Town, and, of course, is accompanied by articles by many other great authors - it's well a worth a read. The magazine is available both as a hardcopy, and as a (cheaper) PDF file.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Continuum 2010

I have just returned from the 2010 incarnation of Continuum, the biennial games convention. I have, of course, mentioned this before, and now its back again! I have to say that this seemed, even by the high standards of Continuum, and its predecessor, Convulsion, to be a particularly good event. So far as I could tell, everything was running smoothly, and there was certainly plenty to do throughout the whole weekend.

Of course, a lot of the time was, as always, spent socialising and drinking (so much so that the bar ran out of cider on Saturday evening - fortunately they obtained more for the next day). As always, the conversations were eclectic, and covered much more than just gaming - such as the precise distinction between Prussia and Brandenburg, the funereal habits of the middle-eastern Neolithic, and methods of promotion in the Royal Navy during the 18th century. Because such things are, of course, more important than anything involving, say, footballs.

But, of course, we're there mainly for the gaming. I managed to get into four games over the course of the weekend, which, with seminars in the mornings, out-of-tune singing on Saturday night, and me shouting at people on Sunday evening, made quite a full timetable. The first game was a Glorantha HeroQuest adventure (just published in Gloranthan Adventures), which resulted in much craziness, and dropping of roofs on top of undead sparrows.

On the Saturday, I played in a scenario for the hard SF game River of Heaven. If you've not heard of that before, it's probably because it hasn't yet been published - apparently it should be out by the end of the year. Hard SF doesn't seem to get much of a look-in when it comes to RPGs (although I'm sure one could argue about just how hard is 'hard'), but this setting did look quite interesting from the brief glimpse we got. The scenario itself, concerning a crisis on an STL interstellar cargo ship, was written and GMed by the game's designer, John Ossoway, and gave us plenty to do, without it being too difficult to follow the relevant details of the setting.

On Saturday evening, that was followed by a free-form set in Kingsport, Massachusetts. I was playing a thinly disguised Herbert West, amidst a steadily growing mountain of insanity, much of which revolved heavily around snakes. By the end of the scenario I was was turned into a brain-eating zombie, which seems appropriate enough, under the circumstances. In short, this was a very fun free-form, and one where I managed to keep constantly busy (I've been in some before where this wasn't the case), which I'd recommend if it's run again.

And then, on the Sunday, I played in a game based on the 1960s TV series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. I played Destiny Angel - I'm sure you can see the resemblance. The GM was obviously very well versed on the show - certainly far more than I was - and did a good job of working in its various conventions, as well as using a brilliant set of props. All in all, very well done, and a lot of effort looked to have gone into it.

In terms of my own publications, it looks as if much of volumes 1 and 3 of Lords of the West should be out in time for Dragonmeet, although no promises on that one. It's looking highly likely that these will, in fact, be published under a single cover, which will make quite a substantial book. There is no specific news on a release date for volume 2, as yet.

And, of course, the best news: there will be another Continuum in 2012. So that will definitely be something to look forward to!

Monday, 1 March 2010

Kingdom of Heroes - scenario review

You may have noticed in my main review of Kingdom of Heroes that I said there were a few things missing that I would have liked to see more of. Given that, at the same time, I pointed out how unusually large the book is for a RP supplement, you might quite reasonably have wondered what I would get rid of to fit this extra information in. The answer, quite simply, is the scenario.

This isn't, I hasten to add, because it's a poor scenario - it isn't. It's just that I don't feel a scenario belongs in this sort of book, or certainly not a scenario of this length (70 pages). Removing this section, perhaps along with the material on the Colymar tribe that supports it, would not only have made the book shorter (and cheaper), but, perhaps more importantly, might have made it more attractive to players as well as GMs. The scenario deserved to be published, no doubt about that - but it could have had its own book without any real problem.

Nonetheless, Moon Design chose to publish it here, so the question is what is the scenario itself like? To begin with, it provides some information (most of it new, so far as I can tell) about the PCs' suggested base, the Orlmarth clan of the Colymar tribe. There is no particular reason why a GM would have to use the Orlmarth, though, and the scenario would work just as well with almost any Sartarite clan that isn't pro-Lunar - including, obviously, one that the players might have created themselves. Of course, it would require more work to do that, so the detailing of the Orlmarth as a typical clan is very welcome here.

The scenario itself concerns the PCs' attempts to acquire three things of great importance currently in the possession of hostile forces. I've heard it claimed that the scenario is rather 'rail-roading', but I really can't agree with that at all. There is one bit of rail-roading, which I'll return to later, but only one that I can see. For most of the rest of the scenario, multiple different options are frequently spelled out, often in some detail. This is partly why the scenario is so long, in fact.

The heroes have multiple different ways to resolve the problems in front of them, and the scenario won't break if they decide on the "wrong" approach, although choices made earlier on will most definitely have differing repercussions later. This, I think, is really the way to do it, and the authors have made a good job of it.

Oddly, though, I can see why it might not feel like that. In part one, for instance, the authors clearly hope that the PCs will take a specific, and fairly convoluted, path to acquiring the first item. That this path gets so much detail makes it appear quite rail-roaded even though, actually, you don't have to take that particular approach to succeed at the task.

Perhaps worse, there's a suggestion that the GM should, effectively, take over one of the PCs at critical points in the scenario, ensuring that he responds to challenges in the way that will best further the scenario. This is supposed to represent involuntary hero-forming, but the irony is that, in most cases, the players will probably do what they're supposed to do without the prompting. And if they don't... well, it might be a little more work for the GM, but the scenario won't break. In other words, you're giving them the illusion of having no choice in affairs, when actually they have free will. I'd recommend ignoring those bits, and let the players extemporise their own hero-forming, if they must.

There are also a few minor quibbles here and there. On a couple of occasions, the writers seem to forget that some of the PCs may well be heterosexual women, and there's an NPC with a background so mysterious, even the GM isn't allowed to know what it is - beyond the fact that, whatever it is, it's significant!

I had to read the description of one of the challenges three times to make head or tail of it, since it looked as if even a Complete Success would result in the hero failing abysmally. It turns out the stake wasn't what I thought it was, and the writers had made an unstated assumption that the heroes would be trying something that hadn't even occurred to me. That could have been made clearer, and alternatives provided. And the snippets of poetry get a bit tedious after a while, so that some groups might prefer to ignore or paraphrase them.

But these quibbles are, indeed, minor. Any experienced GM can sort them out with a minimum of fuss if they look likely to raise a problem in his game. Slightly more of a problem is the one bit of rail-roading, which occurs right at the beginning. Essentially, one of the PCs makes a decision that kicks off all the events in the scenario, and if he doesn't make that particular decision, you're screwed. Moreover, it has to be a PC who meets certain requirements; the scenario doesn't work if the "wrong" PC is the only one who takes the course of action in question.

Fortunately, the requirements aren't especially onerous, and I'd guess 95% of groups will have at least one PC who fits the bill... but how the other 5% are supposed to cope isn't at all clear. Given how far the rest of the scenario goes to account for varying PC actions, something more than the advice "you must ensure one of the PCs does X" would have been a very good thing here.

If the beginning of the scenario is a bit iffy, the ending is spectacular. It takes the form of a heroquest, with all of the good points of the Boat Planet scenario from Gathering Thunder, and none of the bad points. This time, the heroes really are the ones in charge, the ones that the legends will be written about - and, make no mistake, what they're doing is pretty legendary stuff, enmeshed with a key event in Gloranthan history. This really is "HeroQuest", not the HenchmanQuest of the Boat Planet. Yes, it's fairly linear, but then heroquests often are, and so long as the heroes get to come centre stage, that's fine by me.

All in all, I think it's a great scenario, one worthy of the Gloranthan canon. It's fun, exciting, and heroic, and most of the problems that might come up can be easily fixed by a competent GM.

The big let-down, unfortunately, is not the fault of the writers, but of HQ2: the scenario has essentially no stats. Not just no numbers, but no real stats at all, even in outline - opponents are described as "Very Hard to overcome", or whatever, and that's it. I'd hardly expect fully worked character sheets for the NPCs, because that would take up too much space, but I found that the absence of anything at all to get my teeth into detracted from something that should otherwise have been excellent. It feels empty and bland, only partially offset by the grandeur of the narrative scenery.

I can already hear some people moaning "but the stats never worked in HQ1". Perhaps not - although I remain unconvinced that there was no way of fixing that - but, for me at least, that's not the point. Perhaps I'm in a minority, but I very much having prefer stats that are "wrong" to having no stats at all. Bad stats I can adjust; missing stats require a lot more work than that.

But, as I say, that's not a fault of the scenario per se. It is written for the system as it is, not as I'd like it to be. With that caveat, it's one of the better HQ scenarios to be published. Even if I think it would have been better in a book of its own.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

More Trick or Treatment?

This will be a relatively quick summary of the remaining two talks in the Trick or Treatment? meeting I mentioned in my prior post.

The second speaker was Andy Lewis, better known as "Le Canard Noir" of the Quackometer website. His talk was a funny and entertaining look at alternative medicine down the ages. After a brief discussion of Bath, a city whose modern wealth was, to an extent, founded on alternative medicine, he turned to tractors. No, not that sort. These were, in fact, pointed metal rods that supposedly pulled out (hence 'tractor') malign electrical energies from a patient.

These things were very popular in their day, and were cited as having successfully cured a number of conditions. The crucial point here is that these devices were invented by a man named Elisha Perkins, around 1795, just a few years after Samuel Hahnemann invented homoeopathy. So why is it that we all know about Hahnemann's technique, but not Perkins'? There are probably changes in fashion that are relevant here. Perkins' tractors relied on electricity, which was a very cool and mysterious sounding sort of thing at the time - a bit like the use of the word 'quantum' these days in all manner of pseudoscience. The fact that Perkins was out to make a lot of money, and patented his devices, is probably also significant - his techniques required special kit that you could only buy from his company. Hahnemann, by contrast, spread his ideas widely, intentionally making it easy for other people to copy him, and for his technique to long outlive his death.

Lewis presented a list of features that any good alternative medical treatment should have if it is do well - one almost certainly needs a bit of luck and promotional skill as well, of course. He discussed Hopi ear candles, which you stick in your ear and light up to draw out noxious substances. (Which they apparently don't, in case you were wondering). These are an example of an alternative medical technique that claims an ancient pedigree to make itself sound more impressive. Supposedly, they were used by the Hopi tribe, whose origins date back at least eight centuries. Yet, interestingly, the Hopi themselves deny this, and say it has nothing at all to do with their culture. In fact, there doesn't appear to be any clear evidence that the candles existed before their manufacturer went into business in the late 20th century.

There was also some discussion of how some early examples of a book about "natural medicine" by John Wesley, better known as the founder of Methodism. There were a great many remedies in this book, and a lot of them involved turnips. It's interesting to note that many of these would actually have been quite effective. While its unlikely that, say, rubbing turnips into a woman's breasts will cure very much (although I'm sure a few people would be willing to give it a try), Wesley's recommendation that they be used to treat scurvy would have been quite sound. Not only do turnips contain vitamin C, but, for most people of the day, they would have been much easier to get hold of than lemons.

The last speaker of the day was Professor John Garrow, of HealthWatch. He has spent much of his career studying obesity, and discussed a number of alternative treatments that, essentially, promise to get rid of your flab without any actual effort on your part. Which one can certainly see the appeal of, but, as you might imagine, tends not to work very well.

His particular focus was on HealthWatch's efforts to fight misleading adverts for such cures, through the Advertising Standards Authority and Trading Standards Officers. In particular, he mentioned the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, which effectively outlaws dodgy advertising of this type - but which has never been used to prosecute anyone since its introduction in 2008. HealthWatch itself having so far failed to get apparent breaches of the regulations prosecuted, he proposed a wider study to determine whether there is any will on the part of the relevant officials to do so. If there should, for some reason, turn out to be a systematic bias against enforcing the regulations in the UK, then that would be a violation of British commitments to the EU, and action could potentially be taken on those grounds.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Trick or Treatment?

You know what they call alternative medicine that's been proved to work?
- Tim Minchin, "Storm"

Which rather encapsulates my problem with so-called complementary and alternative medicine. It is, at least in principle, not that hard to test whether a given medical treatment works or not, and anything that falls into the "alternative" camp has generally either not been tested at all, or if it has, has tended to fail the test. My view is that, if you're going to make medical claims you really ought to be able to back them up. And that's really the bottom line.

For instance, I see no particular reason why herbal medicines, for instance, shouldn't work. But they really ought to be tested to check exactly what they do (and what side effects they have, if any) and should only be sold and advertised based on what the evidence actually says. As a professional healthcare worker, this is something I do regard as important. Because the danger is that someone might take an inert treatment for a serious condition, and delay real treatment that might genuinely help them. There should be no double standards. (And that, incidentally goes for any malfeasance that the regular pharmaceutical companies might engage in).

So, anyway, I was obviously going to be interested in the latest event to be held by CFI London at Conway Hall. The "Trick or Treatment?" was a series of three talks on the subject of alternative medicine, and was well up the usual standard.

As it so happened, this was the same day selected by the 10:23 campaign to conduct a mass overdose to protest the selling of homoeopathic remedies by Boots the Chemist as if they were real remedies. Boots have been singled out here because, on 25th November 2009, Paul Bennett, the Professional Standards Director of the company testified before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that he did not personally believe homoeopathy worked, but that he was happy to sell it if people wanted to buy it. This strikes me as a pretty irresponsible attitude.

The overdosing had nothing to do with the event at Conway Hall, although some of the campaigners were outside. [Video of short discussion here]. But it does illustrate where this sort of thing can be useful. It's not going to convince the homoeopaths to change their mind, or anything like that. Nor any of their customers who have already made an informed decision (albeit, in my view, an erroneous one). But one has to wonder how many users know what homoeopathy really is. Do they, perhaps, think, that a homoeopathic preparation labelled, say, "Belladonna", actually contains any... well, Belladonna? Once they realise that, in all but the "weaker" preparations, it actually doesn't, then they might be in a better position to make that informed choice. And then it's up to them.

Anyway, the actual event opened with Simon Singh talking about acupuncture, chiropractice, and, of course, libel law. Acupuncture, as I probably don't need to explain, is the hypothesis that the human body contains channels, or "meridians" of magical energy called "Chi", and that by altering this flow by inserting needles into specific points along the meridians, it is possible to alleviate pain, and maybe also cure disease.

It's interesting to note, as a later speaker did, that this method may not be quite as ancient as commonly thought. Earlier references to the method apparently actually refer to cutting into patients with flint knives, which isn't quite what we think of today. Although, in fairness, the underlying concept is much the same. Some forms of acupuncture are even more modern. "Auricular acupuncture" only dates from the 1950s, when it was realised that the human ear looks quite like a foetus - and that it therefore obviously followed that, if you stuck needles in the parts of the ear that corresponded to where the meridian points would be if it were a whole body, the therapeutic effects should be the same.

Uh huh.

That aside, it has to be said that an interesting problem arises when we look at testing acupuncture to see how effective it is. To rule out the possibility of a placebo effect, with any proposed treatment it's important to test two groups of patients: one actually receiving the treatment, and another who think they are, but actually aren't. That's easy enough with a pill, but most people can tell if you've stuck a needle into them or not.

The problem isn't completely intractable however. The meridian lines are supposed to be quite deep, so you could just make a very shallow puncture, and see if that makes a difference. Or you could use fake needles, rather like stage daggers, that appear to stick into you, but, in fact, just retract. Or you could just put the needles in the wrong place - if acupuncture theory says they should go into the hand, put them into the feet, for instance. (Obviously this last one doesn't work if the patient knows enough about acupuncture to realise what you're up to).

And, guess what - when you do these sorts of studies, the "fake" treatments work pretty much as well as the real acupuncture. Which isn't to say that they don't work at all, just that acupuncture appears to be a fairly effective way of harnessing the placebo effect, and that all the stuff about Qi and meridians has no bearing on that.

Chiropractice was originally based on the theory that the body maintains its health by channelling vital energy through the spinal nerves. Virtually all disease, claimed its founder, Daniel David Palmer, was due to misalignments, or "subluxations" of the spine, blocking the passage of this vital energy to the relevant body parts. Now, not all chiropractors today necessarily believe that, but some it seems, still do, and claim that manipulating the spine can cure, for example, ear infections. One would have thought there was quite enough money in curing just back pain, but there you go.

In fact, it's probably worth mentioning that, regardless of what it might do for ear infections and the like, there does seem to be some reasonable evidence that chiropractice can help to relieve back pain. Perhaps surprisingly, it's not terribly good at doing even this - but in fairness, neither is anything else (such as, say, mainstream physiotherapy). In this particular respect, I'm not aware of any clear evidence that it's any different from the various alternatives, and at least some of the time, it does seem to work.

This brings me back to the point I made earlier about informed knowledge. Many people, it seems, are unaware that chiropractors aren't MDs, and that, at least when it comes to conditions other than back pain, there really isn't an awful lot of evidence that the technique works.

Given that my verbosity has once again got the better of me, I'll move onto the other two speakers at a later time.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Lords of the West: Update 1

Well, things have been a lot more encouraging than I had feared. I am not going to give specific details here, since I would not want to seem to be making promises on behalf of other people. However, I can say that there has been a fair degree of interest from Gloranthan publishers in getting the material out there.

I should also stress that Moon Design have been helpful in this regard. While they no longer have any interest in publishing my work, they have been supportive in attempts to get it published by other means. For example, material that I did not originally write, but was supplied to me by Issaries has been cleared for publication along with those elements that I did write.

So, without going into specifics of proposed publication dates or issue numbers, here is what has already been agreed since the beginning of the week:

  • The Junora chapter of LotW3, which is largely self-contained, has been definitively accepted for publication in one of the Glorantha magazines. It will almost certainly be the first release, and could be considered a "teaser" for the rest.
  • The remainder of LotW3 (the Loskalm book) has also been accepted for publication, barring some specifically HQ1 rules sections. I would say that things are looking good for a time frame that I think most people will be pleased with.
  • Most of the material in LotW2 (Kingdom of the Flamesword) has been accepted for publication in principle, and I am confident that this will also see the light of day before too long.
  • LotW1 (Heroes of Malkion), ironically may be the last part to be released. An agreement has been made to publish around half of this, although another large section remains unclaimed at this time.
  • I have received permission from Moon Design to publish, free of charge, at my own website, any outstanding material that is not picked up by any of the licensed magazine publishers.
Obviously, I would have preferred my writings to be published, as originally intended, in book form. And I would have liked them to become, at least in part "official" or "canonical", neither of which will now happen. However, I do think that we have a very positive outcome here, from a situation that looked quite bleak just one week ago. It is, in fact, highly likely that this material will now be published sooner than would otherwise have been the case - since MD would, naturally enough, have been working on the Pavis Book and other high priority projects.

I would like to say thank you to all of those involved in moving this forward, who hopefully know who they are! I will, of course, give more specific details once the publishers concerned have decided to release it. For everyone who has been giving me words of encouragement over the last week, I would also like to say a big thank you, and I hope you are all pleased with the final result when it appears.

Further Mini-Update:

I can now reveal, to those who haven't noticed, that the Junora article will be appearing in Hearts in Glorantha #4. Note the expected release date of "March/April 2010"!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Lords of the West cancelled

Or at least, the version(s) of it I produced have been; Moon Design may well decide to produce their own version with a different writer at some point in the future. Obviously, having worked for seven and a half years on this, this is pretty disappointing for me. In the end, Moon Design's vision of what they wanted shifted too far from the original agreement (which was not, of course, made by them) for continuing on the project to be worthwhile, and they chose to pull the plug.

Indeed, in general, I have a feeling that since the production of HeroQuest 2, the whole Gloranthan project has shifted from something I enjoy to something that's less so. This is not, of course, to blame any of those directly involved in that change. Change does happen, and whenever it does, people get left out in the cold. It happened before with RQ3 with respect to RQ2 fans, and again with HW with respect to RQ2/3 fans. It's inevitable to some extent, and more so when there is a major change in gaming philosophy involved.

It's hard at times like this, when one is on the losing end, not to feel abandoned or rejected by the Gloranthan 'tribe' that they keep talking about. But that's probably largely unfair. I certainly intend to go to Continuum this year, and hopefully have a good time, overcoming the doubtless unavoidable tinge of disappointment and regret. Heck, after seven and a half years of repeating cycles of hard work and frustration, I was hardly on my most diplomatic behaviour by the end. So, if anyone reading this feels that I have offended them over the course of the last year or so, I offer my sincere apologies.

So, enough moping; where do we go from here? Well, the good news is that I am currently negotiating for publication of at least some of the material through other channels. In fact, some of it may even appear earlier than might otherwise have been the case. I can't give further details yet, as nothing has been definitely agreed beyond an expression of interest from one respected source in the Gloranthan community. Stay tuned for updates as they become available.