PTA: Plundering Pitard IV

On Friday, a group of us got together and pitched a new network retro-scifi TV show. The show we described is pleasantly hokey (but not in a way that the characters acknowledge), with futuristic ray-guns and robots that mean well but don’t have the finest motor control.

The series stars Lt. Johnny Coburn, Commander Hank Houston, Alginon Rockefeller III, Willhelm Wolfgang Muler, and KRNCH-E.

We played one round of scenes after finishing the pitch.

The show started off with the silver bright spaceship landing, sinking slightly into the soft ground. The gangplank dropped and a line of suited figures in classic bubble helmets strode forward and down the gangplank. Coburn kept an eye out for danger, Houston posed for the cameras, and Willhelm held up a sampling rig, while Myrtle… coughed and started to topple. Alginon and KRNCH-E made themselves scarce!

Houston caught her, while Willhelm unhooked his air supply and fed it into her suit. Coburn leveled the swaying grasses with his raygun. Myrtle was rushed to the medical bay where quick analysis revealed that cyclotoxins were responsible. The ship was buckled up tight…

(Missing Scene?)

The next scene involved KRNCH-E and Muller setting up atmospheric purging stations around the ship. Eerie green lights and clouds of purified fog billow around the ship.

Lt. Coburn struggled to get approval to adequately secure the compound. An electrified chain link fence was erected to form a secure perimeter around the ship; Coburn was unable to get authorization for the six turrets that would create a secure space, but two were allowed. Somehow, he’d make it work.

Alginon decided to get mining analysis underway; he convinced Houston to send ten marines to escort Gerald, the mining geological expert, to the nearby mountains. Hours later, panicked cries came in over the radio from the scout team–but the transmission was abruptly cut off.

Huston and his simmering second in command, “Big” Dan Anderson, led every marine to the site of the ambush. A radioed call from base warned of disaster from everyone’s absence, and mentioned impressing civilians into running the turrets. Huston peevishly ordered five men to scour the area for the bodies of all of the fallen, while he hustled back to base with the remaining 25 soldiers.


I recently wrote an article on Medium called Stretch/Touch. It was a burst of creativity captured and set down in one go.

(Archived below the fold in case I outlast Medium.)


If you see me walking in the morning, you might think you’ve encountered a madman. As I walk, my gaze almost never rests straight ahead; my neck bends forward until my chin touches my chest, or my head rolls in a grand circle around my shoulders as if held by a few tendons. It’s the lingering effect of one the most influential classes I had in college — a one night class offered in a neighboring dorm’s living room.

I grew up knowing the value of massage; I was trained to exacting standards by Dad. He taught the skill with a wink as to its value in seeking a mate, but proved eager to offer himself up for our practice. Many nights, while watching TV or talking in the living room, he’d slip off the couch onto the floor before my brother or me and ask for a few minutes of work on his neck, or for someone to work out a knot just below his shoulder, or maybe work the spine?

The class was offered for our cluster of dorms on a Tuesday night. Turnout was light; maybe 14 or 16 students showed. We swiftly divided into partners, which was when I discovered that I was one of two guys who’d showed up alone — everyone else was dating their partner.

The initial lecture and demonstration I’ve carried with me ever since. It was about self-care and stretching, simple exercises you could do alone. Stretching to prevent stress and tension from locking you up or fixing you in position — or being dependent on a faraway father for working out knots accumulating from study and worry. She taught us to slowly rotate our head, chin down to the chest, then held over the left shoulder, then chin up and straining back, rolling right and hovering over the right shoulder, then chin back to nestling on the chest. Balancing tension, sometimes edging into soreness, muscles warning of accumulated rust, inflexible muscles deeply reluctant to stretch far enough to dip your chin onto the waiting shoulder.

At the time I was more interested in the partners’ portion, “real massage”. I sheepishly paired with the only other stag guy. He sat before me and I followed along as instructed, my hand muscles experienced and firm, working tension from his neck. When we switched, the instructor encouraged us to relax as much as possible; I quietly blew out breath and sagged into his hands over the sounds of laughter at my boneless posture. His hands weren’t practiced, but I appreciated his efforts to follow instruction and work some tension from my neck and shoulders. It almost counteracted the weight of eyes on me, reminding me that I wasn’t one of the couples, one of those who really belonged.

After that hour I avoided further massage classes. Massage was clearly marked out as a couple’s space; something I’d known intellectually, but I was left disappointed once I’d internalized the message. I had hoped that massage would be a community of people giving relief and easing tense muscles, but found again the same exclusionary pairing that limited access to so many spaces.

Had I only thought twice, I’d have realized that uncoupled women wouldn’t show up for a massage class. Massage is too often tied to seduction. Letting some strange guy run his hands over you wouldn’t dissolve tension for many — they’d develop knots that’d resist an amateur’s fumbling efforts to relieve.

Over the last few years, I’ve smiled at the ergonomics and workplace stretches handouts that HR sends along. Some instruction is new (like “concentrate on an object at least thirty feet away for ten seconds every hour”), but the seated exercises almost always incorporate elements of that long ago class in a dorm living room.

These days, I get up early and go for a walk before returning home to shower and work at desk and computer. The light exercise wakes me to a degree that I can’t match any other way. When I skip my morning walk, the first hours are a struggle; concentrating proves so very hard.

If you happen to see me in the morning as I walk, you might see shoulders rolling, lifting, falling in their sockets. Hands swing forward to bump each other, rebound, arc out to the sides, disappear behind my back, slowing then crashing and rebounding, swinging forward again. I’ll wave sheepishly, but return to my odd stretches as I turn right down the next street.

How useful that class, one evening, so many years ago.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

A solid book, very much about economics and driven by thoughtful examination of formulas and lots of historical data, but not dense in numbers and equations. He writes with a lively touch, occasionally appealing to novels of specific eras to illustrate how commonplace some concepts and assumptions were.

In a way the primary argument is pessimistic; it took two world wars and a great depression to claw 1/3rd of wealth away from the top decile. Unfortunately, the fundamental laws of interest on capital have counteracted that spread of wealth; income on investments is becoming ever more the key to a life of extreme wealth.

It’s also interesting how corrosive the lowering of top marginal tax rates proved. From the 1930s to 1970s tax rate was so high that there was no reason to fight for a multi-million dollar salary–you’d lose most of it to taxes. That kept the boundaries of what was acceptable as income much closer to normal experience. Between hedge fund loopholes and wealth hiding, the wealthy today have every incentive to demand more and more, since they get to keep most of it. (In fact, they do such a good job of hiding their income and exploiting loopholes, that they on average pay less as a percentage of their income than the $50,000 to $250,000 per year set.)

The final few chapters bleakly examine ways to counteract the bare math of r > g, which is the law that interest grows faster than the economy as a whole. The most important element that he advances is a wealth tax, both for the obvious reasons (to shift taxation from workers to those living off of investments), but also for informational purposes. One of the big drawbacks to wealth taxes, at the moment, is that even governments have little idea of what non-land wealth people have. Even a tiny tax (say 0.1 percent) would get academics, researchers, and the government the information they need to design better, more targeted taxes.

The fly in the ointment is coordination. Unless done on a large scale (the US, the whole EU, or globally), paper wealth is hard to pin to a specific location. If Germany implements a wealth tax, the company stock may all be assigned to Ireland to dodge it. For everything but land, it’s easy to evade a single country’s efforts–great wealth is multinational these days.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

I recently finished City of Stairs, which was good but didn’t impress me as much as others seem to be experiencing. I wonder if the stuff that makes it a step above requires looking more at the world building.

It’s fantasy on the verge of Victorian (though without extensive steampunk). The lead character is interesting, as is the murder she’s trying to solve. The setting is very interesting, and events both recent and a couple of centuries old have resulted in a world with recriminations and colonial resentments.

Well done, there was just something “sparky” missing to make me eager for more.

(Edited to add: Something that came up in conversation, that speaks to the world building, is that it handles colonialism and its backlash directly and well. I agree that it’s well done, and can see how world builders in particular appreciated seeing it handled well in a fantasy story.)

The Histories of King Kelson (and King Kelson’s Bride)

These four books are interesting in their organization and subject. In many ways, it’s two pairs of books, for the main issues shift gears dramatically between books 2 and 3.

The Bishop’s Heir was probably the first Deryni book that I read. The background is dark and complicated–following The Chronicles of the Deryni the religious debate follows naturally, but I was amazed at it without the background context the first time.

The heart of the book is the developing Mearan secession crisis. We also meet a highland friend of Kelson’s, who was quite absent during the first trilogy, but Dhugal’s pretty interesting fellow. Meara feels like a pseudo-Scottish region of the kingdom; their separate history and politics feel a little “wait, what” when they’re first introduced (since why didn’t they affect the first trilogy more?), but history’s complications soon make this conflict feel fully realized as well.

Both sides get good development, and we even get introduced to Conall more, which begins laying the groundwork for the third book. But first, we need to finish this war…

The King’s Justice does NOT suffer the middle book of the trilogy effect. The Mearan war rages throughout, but it’s resolved completely by the end of the the book. It’s a fierce but unconventional war; this time Kelson has so many advantages, but he has to deal with determined partisans.

It’s well done; Kelson has age appropriate issues with impulse and passion. The war is brutal and feels appropriately so, and the church’s deryni question continues to confound and exacerbate the normal concerns of rebellion.

The Quest for Saint Camber is very different in feel from the previous 5 books. Kelson and Dhugal get an individual adventure feeling book, heavy on the difficulties of survival with limited resources. In parallel, we see Conall struggle with his birthright–the constraints of being raised to rule but thwarted from actually ruling.

The book delivers good development for many characters, and is quite a dark pleasure, though Kelson and Dhugal’s suffering is tricky to read. Much like the dark parts of the last Harry Potter novel, it feels repetitious, but the monotony does a good job of reinforcing their experience, even though it’s not fun in the same way as the Kingdom centered adventures.

King Kelson’s Bride has some parallels to In the King’s Service, in that there’s a lot of focus away from conquest and battles. As the title suggests, marriage runs through the novel as a backbone–sometimes overtly and reduced to geneology debates, often more personally.

The book gives us interesting viewpoints within Torenth and shifts nicely from marriage considerations to politics to action and magic and back around to politics and marriage. The book ends with Kelson and his kingdom set for a glorious renaissance. It’s a nice place to end the timeline–and it feels earned. (Well, Araxie does seem too good to be true, but it’s nice recompense for Kelson’s terrible previous luck.)

The Chronicles of the Deryni

The first trilogy of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books. I particularly like this trilogy; I first read it when I was younger (in my teens, I think), which helped me empathize with Kelson.

The most recent reread of this series followed the last book of the Childe Morgan Trilogy, which was (in the world of the book) the events a dozen years before this book begins.

Deryni Rising was the trilogy’s first book. It’s set in the court of Gywnedd; Kelson Haldane’s father is killed in the first few pages. The book is about Kelson’s struggle to take over; he’s only 14. He’s also the crown prince, heir to magic powers passed down from his father… but even those are complicated.

The world building is extremely engaging. As the first book, some of the specific flavor is contradicted or presented differently in later books, but it’s pretty subtle. (Basically, the magic feels more like a wizard in this book, but more like psionics as the series evolves.)

The church is prominent and a source of divided loyalties. I really appreciated the role of the church; it helped this fantasy world feel very “low magic”… even though Deyrni powers prove incredibly useful and powerful.

Deryni Checkmate continues the trilogy. It’s a traditional middle book of a trilogy, in that the victory of the previous book is complicated and new problems crop up. We learn a lot more about the deryni and their powers–in part because Morgan and Duncan use their powers more generally.

The world that’s sketched is nuanced and very complicated; Kelson’s struggle to balance his many obligations is well done. Of course, nothing’s truly resolved… other than a tragedy in the wings.

High Deryni reveals Gwenydd’s rotten underbelly; there’s yet more treason. Things do get worse before they get better. The ending features a very surprising twist that’s indirectly foreshadowed.

This is a book of war and war-magic. We learn about Torenth and its king… and more about the Camberian Council. The book is urgent, but the pace isn’t a headlong rush.

I love the trilogy for the way they build a world that’s not too far from medieval England/Europe. There are some significant differences, but they’re largely grounded in the specific politics and relations of the region. The people feel… as correctly full of superstitions and prejudices.