3.5 stars

5 Things About Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

  1. I’m finally in the know
  2. Stephen Fry is a great narrator
  3. The story was charming
  4. I never got annoyed with the characters
  5. It was very much a set up novel

Rating: ★★★☆

GUESS WHO FINALLY STARTED HARRY POTTER?! Me! I listened to the audiobook back in January and my review is finally up.

You can read my full review of HP#1 on Readers in Wonderland

Submission - Historical Map: Chicago CTA Rapid Transit Map, 1983

Submitted by our resident repository of Chicago transit map knowledge, Dennis McClendon, who says:

This map of Chicago’s rapid transit network originated in the 1970s (this one is from June 1983), and this style was used until routes received color names in 1993. Happily, by that time digital printing in fiberglass-embedded signs made full-color maps easier to place in graffiti-prone environments.

These maps were silk-screened onto [blue] color blanks, and every color of ink added cost. So the CTA’s six lines are represented by using only two colors. Simple black is used for three “extension” lines that never overlap. A simple white line is used for the north-south line those connect with. For the two other through routes: black with white casing and white with black casing.

The side ticks for stations work fine, but a box for the places where transfers are possible is not altogether intuitive.  The CTA of that era employed skip-stop spacing, so alternate trains stopped at A or B stations only. Another graphic decision that might have deserved more thought:  the names of various suburbs—only a few of which can be reached by rapid transit—floating in their vague geographic positions, but no indication of Chicago city limits or Lake Michigan.


Transit Maps says:

I have to say that I actually really like the forced graphic simplicity of this map. There’s only two colours to work with, so every element has to be very carefully considered and balanced against others for the map to work at all. That it manages to keep the route lines recognisable and separated in the downtown Loop area without the use of an inset map is quite an achievement.

The famous “A-B” stopping patterns are shown pretty deftly as well, being mostly placed on the opposite side of the route line from the station name. The few stations where this doesn’t happen (due to crowding or space limitations) stand out like a sore thumb – Jarvis on the North-South line, and many of the stations on the Ravenswood line. There are also two stations with their labels set at an angle: Merchandise Mart is almost completely unavoidable, but Harvard on the Englewood Line could easily have been fitted in horizontally.

I think the “boxed” interchanges work well enough, having seen similar devices on quite a few maps (the Paris Metro included) now. I also like the extra detail included on the map: station closures on weekends and nights, direction of travel around the Loop, inbound boarding only on the last three stations on the Jackson Park North-South Line, and more.

I would agree with Dennis on the locality names, that just seem to float in space. The biggest offender is “Evergreen Park”, right at the very bottom of the map, below the legend!

As for depicting Lake Michigan, that seems like a good idea, but I struggle to think of a way of doing it without upsetting the delicate balance of the map. You can’t really use a white line, as that could be confused with all the white route lines, and you can’t have a large white area as that would be visually way too heavy. In the end, the lake isn’t that important for such a graphically stylised map (it really just delineates the eastern side of the map), so I’m not too upset by its absence.

Our rating: A fine historical example of how to use a limited colour palette effectively. Minimalist but still effective. Three-and-a-half stars.

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Star-Spawn of Cthulhu

(Image comes from artist Scott Purdy’s DeviantArt page and is © Paizo Publishing.)

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him…”

—Genesis 1:27

I already shot my pseudopod re: pseudogod Cthulhu himself back around Halloween.  (And as far as I can tell it’s my most popular post, bar none.) So I don’t have all that much to add about his star-spawn, especially since their entry in the Bestiary 4 is so comprehensive.  For all practical purposes, they look the same as their dark high priest, though they only top out at 30 feet high.  (As a bonus, their elastic limbs can also stretch 30 feet in combat—hope you have some polearms handy!  That’s assuming their telepathic minds didn’t already knock you out in your dreams last night.)  We know they warred with the elder things in the distant past and have manipulated the mi-go to their purposes, so if either of those two baddies have shown up in your game, you have a reason to tie in the star-spawn.  They also move and plan long-term—this is a race happy to use its immortality flying between planets with only the limited starflight ability—so PCs will likely never know if their interference saved the day or merely set back the spawn’s goals by a millennium or two.

But let’s face it…really, the reason you have the star-spawn of Cthulhu in your game is because it’s only a CR 20 creature.  I feel like I need sarcasm quotes every time I say “only,” but you get my point.  In other words, it’s a Cthulhu proxy most parties can face and possibly even survive against without resorting to mythic ranks and divine intervention.  Maybe the spawn is a servitor of Cthulhu…or maybe it’s actually an aspect of him intruding into the world.  (D&D 3.0/3.5 did similar things with aspects of the various demon lords.)  If the PCs win, they’ve saved the world (for a little while at least), and if they lose, they’ve still got a chance to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and rally allies for another strike.  That makes fighting the star-spawn an epic task, but not an impossible one—perfect for heroic fantasy role-playing.

Best of all, if they have too easy a time of it, you don’t even have to sweat.  Just imagine the look on your players’ faces when you announce that, congratulations, the noise of their battle with the star-spawn has awakened 1d6 of his friends…

Adventures have fought the watery servants of Dagon their entire career.  They’ve battled cultists in sunken canals, defeated marsh giants in Drowned Ulm, took on mer-form to battle inside the gut of a ceratioidi temple-fish, and scalped a fiendish brine dragon.  Now as the demon lord’s temple city falls around them, they consider their work well and truly done…until the city is borne aloft on a cloud of noxious gases and coral sails.  And as the city ascends into space, the adventurers meet the Navigators—three star-spawn who bow before the same power Dagon does: Great Cthulhu.

Cthulhu is dead.  In fact, he never even existed.  The First Gods literally unmade a chunk of creation itself to remove the Great Old One from this reality, then shed the parts of themselves that knew of him, birthing the New Gods from their very own selves rather than keep even mere knowledge of the abomination.  But dreams of Cthulhu survived and birthed a star-spawn…or maybe a star-spawn survived and birthed the dream of Cthulhu.  The point is, books with Cthulhu’s name have appeared without anyone writing them.  Cultists have appeared worshipping a god who is not a god but nonetheless grants them spells.  And somewhere on the Demiplane of Dreams a star-spawn of Cthulhu sleeps, and if he is not slain before his dreams are finished, Cthulhu will be dreamed into full existence once more.

When even devils get nervous, you know something’s wrong. And when a half-fiend kasatha arms dealer from Dis closes up shop and takes adventurers out for drinks—and actually volunteers to pay—on auction day at one of the biggest salvage planets in the Known Spheres, you know wrong isn’t even the half of it.  “It’s those fungus bugs, the mi-go,” he says.  “I found out where they’ve been getting their gear from.  Well, the idea-seeds for their gear.  Only it’s not a ‘where’…not even on a planar level.  It’s another dimension—you might say it’s a ‘when’ and a ‘what if?’ and a ‘once was.’ And it’s a ‘who’…this thing called—” And that’s the last thing he says before the shoggoth bomb goes off and he is devoured.

Pathfinder Adventure Path #46 90–91 & Pathfinder Bestiary 4 254–255

The note count was up around 90 for yesterday’s post when I discovered some fluke of the mouse had linked to the wrong radio show.  *headdesk*  Sigh.  So if you tuned in and got my big anniversary show from last February I apologize—it was a fun show, but not exactly what I do week to week.  You were supposed to get this.  (BTW, yesterday’s link is now fixed on Tumblr; I can’t fix it on Blogger but I posted the correct link in the comments.)

Submission - Fantasy Map: A. Merritt Taylor’s Rapid Transit Plan for Philadelphia by Arthur Etchells

Submitted by Arthur, who says:

I’ve been a fan of your website for some time and have dabbled in creating some transit maps of Philadelphia, utilizing many of your tips. The latest is a Vignelli inspired map based on A. Merritt Taylor’s plan for future rapid transit in Philadelphia. The plan is from 1913 and if executed would have left Philadelphia a very different place. 

[This 1913 plan was featured on Transit Maps in October 2014 – Cam]

Transit Maps says:

A handsome interpretation of this classic rapid transit plan from Arthur, executed in an equally classic style. The layout looks great, but I feel like the labelling could be a little larger: there’s generally plenty of room. Getting all of the labels just a little further away from the route lines would be good as well. Because of the small labelling, the connecting services icons – which neatly, represent the old Reading, Penn, and B&O railroads – are small and indistinct as well.

I do think that the route designation bullets that Arthur uses at the base of the maps should be integrated into the map itself as well, otherwise they’re not really much use to people unfamiliar with the system. Verbally, the route names are also a bit of a mouthful: “Oh, you need to catch the sixty-nine-bee-el to get to where you’re going” just isn’t as easy as “the five” or “the A”.

On a technical side, there’s a couple of places where I can see little gaps along the route lines when they go around corners: the paths either need to be joined, or – if they’re separate elements sitting on top to cross over other lines – they need to have round end caps applied to disguise the gap (Cam’s sneaky Illustrator tip #253).

Our rating: A fine depiction of a 100-year-old transit plan. Three-and-a-half stars.

Source: Arthur’s project page about the map

A Chance of Snow (Lifetime, 1998)

“He proposed again too. He came to the school with a firetruck, and told her that she still sets his heart on fire.”

Starring: JoBeth Williams, Michael Ontkean, Barbara Barrie, Dey Young

Plot Synopsis: After signing her divorce papers, a woman heads out to her Minnesota airport with her sister and daughters for a flight to her mother’s home. At the airport, her sportswriter husband shows up to catch a flight to Miami to visit his father. When a blizzard hits, the two suddenly find they have time to re-evaluate their relationship with assistance from an older couple. (x)

In My Humble Opinion: It may be weird to say this, but I love this movie purely for its subplots. Its subplots which feature old people in love (a weakness of mine), and two old classmates (including a single dad!) reconnecting and falling in love while playing arcade games are decidedly adorable, and right up my alley.

As for the main plot, it’s pretty paint by numbers, couple on the outs reconcile while trapped at an airport before Christmas Eve with the help of many other trapped passengers. It’s not one of those plots that are especially memorable, but the movie has enough charm that you are never really rolling your eyes and counting down the minutes until its over.

I first watched this off a recommendation from a friend, and I think it lives up to what she had to say about it. Is it cute & fun & likable, if not maybe groundbreaking.

Watch If: You think the best time to flirt is when playing arcade games, you think that six is the prime number of roses to give to a lover, or if you know that the best way to work through your relationship is to find an older couple who went through a similar situation years before and talk to them.

Skip if: The idea that old people have fantastic sex is disgusting to you, if you were that weird kid who made farmyard noises during class, or if you think ruining your hair for airport security is dumb.

Final Rating: ★ ★ ★ (★) ☆


Official Map: Geographical “London Connections” Map by TfL

Here’s a map that’s been doing the rounds over the last few days, and has now been sent my way by many, many readers (Thanks to all of you!). Compared to the familiar standard Tube map, It’s a more geographically accurate map of rail services in and around London (as of late 2014), and opinions on it seem to be quite divided. Some people think it’s more useful than the normal Tube map, some think it beautiful, while others think it’s a horrendous tangle of spaghetti.

It’s kind of all those things at once for me: it’s very cool to see how all these routes actually look in real life (spaghetti certainly springs to mind!), and the map is very well drawn with a nicely subdued supporting colour palette underneath the bright hues of all the rail lines. It’s especially interesting to see how the lines relate to the built-up urban areas, as shown in beige on the map. The map also makes far more sense of the tangle of Northern Line tracks between Euston and Camden Town than the Tube Map ever has – Mornington Crescent is finally in the right place! However, the curve of the westernmost branch of the Northern Line as it heads north is greatly exaggerated for clarity. The map is more geographically accurate, but not totally so!

However, if I just wanted to catch the Tube from Point A to Point B, I’d still greatly prefer the diagrammatic simplicity of the real Tube Map. The very fact that this map needs an enlarged inset for central London shows the main weakness of a geographical map like this for transit wayfinding. There’s simply too many stations in the middle of the map for them to be shown clearly and effectively. I’d argue that this map is even less useful than its nearest direct analogue, the New York subway map, as the area covered is just so vast. On the NY map, you can see how each stop relates to its immediate neighbourhood, but that’s much more difficult with this map’s scale.

Our rating: This map is fantastic for detailed examination, but for quickly navigating the network, give me a diagram every time! Looks great though, and I’ve definitely pored over its details for quite a while. Three-and-a-half stars.

as long as yelp continues to not offer a “turn off reviews by white people” option, i’m going to only go to “ethnic” restaurants that have 3.5 stars or less. white people don’t like this place? must be great

Unofficial Map: Miami-Dade Metrorail and Metromover by Peter Dovak

I love it when people take my criticism of a map and use it as inspiration to come up with an alternative solution. Having seen my recent review of the new official map (October 2016, 1.5 stars), Peter took it upon himself to redesign it – and quickly, taking less than a day to come up with his version. 

Peter obviously agreed with a lot of my concerns about the official map, because he’s addressed pretty much all of them here: simplified coastline and route trajectories, an inset for the downtown Metromover, the placement of the Downtown Express “e” logo within the relevant station’s dot, and so on… it’s like he’s reading my mind! The overall effect is much improved: the map is very clear and easy to read, although the excision of bus route information means that a direct comparison between the two maps is difficult. (One could argue that the inclusion of a long list of bus numbers without any further information isn’t actually that useful, but I digress…)

There are a couple of minor things that could looked at to improve the map further. The maps’s legend is strangely split into two parts, one off to the left and one hiding underneath the Metromover inset: I think these could be combined into one unified box. There’s certainly plenty of space over to the left for it.

The little blue squiggle representing the Metromover on the main map is very nicely done, but the top part of it gets a little close to the “Culmer” label, which could lead some people to think that there’s some sort of Metrorail/Metromover connection there.

I’d move the “Brownsville” station up a little bit to balance the spacing of the labels a little better along that section. The “Tri-Rail” station name is a little cheaty, as the Metrorail station is named “Tri-Rail”, while the Tri-Rail station is called “Metrorail Transfer”, each indicating a connection to the other service at the respective stations. The official map doesn’t do such a good job of making this clear either, so I can understand any confusion on Peter’s behalf. Finally, I’m not really ever in favour of all-caps labels on transit maps (mixed case is easier to read and just looks better, I feel), although i know that Peter was just emulating the real map’s typography to show how it could work better.

Our rating: That’s better! Clean, modern, easy to read – everything the official map should be, and made in less than 24 hours! Three-and-a-half stars!

Source: Peter’s “Transit Oriented” Website

Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus (Hallmark, 2004)

“Come fly with me child! Come fly with me on a magical mission!!!”

Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Crystal Bernard, Thomas Calabro, Dominic Scott Kay

Plot Synopsis: Nick’s plan to let fate bring his wife to him must be altered because he must replace his father as Santa Claus on December 26. Ernst, the right-hand man to several generations of Santas, generates a list of potential mates. Nick dutifully sets off to meet them, but fate may have a candidate after all. (x)

In My Humble Opinion: The best part about this movie is that it finally answers the question that lingered on everyone’s mind for years: If you merged Obi-Wan Kenobi and Buddy the Elf into a single character what would that be? The answer: Steve Guttenberg’s version of Santa. Well, Santa Jr. to be more precise… he can’t take over the Christmas throne yet, because he isn’t married! Which wouldn’t be a problem for Nick (like he was going to be named anything else), it’s just that he hasn’t found “Someone who feels like the other half of [his] heart.” Understandable. Even if it made me puke on the insides a little bit with its cheesiness. I digress though.

The main draw of this movie really is to see Steve Guttenberg in action. The overarching romance is fine, if a tad super predictable (She’s a career woman AND single mom [because they are near always single moms in these movies], and she’s cynical and she falls in love with Nick and after they leap over that cynicism hurdle everything works out.) Steve Guttenberg, though? A MASTERPIECE. Like I said, he is Obi-Wan Kenobi (using the force on hotel clerks so that they don’t care he has no last name) and Buddy the Elf (see above quote), and it’s so ridiculously perfect that I nearly wept at how ridiculously perfect it was. The one problem I had with the performance is a the end, he does this natural laugh that turns in a natural “Ho Ho Ho” laugh that Steve Guttenberg obviously practiced really hard at perfecting, but still comes off as creepy. It marred the ending of the movie for me, a tiny bit.

I would be remiss to not mention that while Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus features a child, Jake, they managed to make him 1000% more bearable than the child in A Christmas Caper. I really appreciated not completely hating him.

So, in general, this movie is a not too bad way to kill 85 minutes on a Sunday. Especially if you need a Steve Guttenberg fix. (And that Party Down episode he was in was quite some time ago, so I could completely understand if you needed to fulfill the Guttenberg urge.)

Watch If: You really loved Santa Clause 2 and wished all the movies had a similar plotline, you want to learn how singing “Bum Bum Bum Bum” repeatedly can improve your basketball game, or if you want to know why Santa believes strategy games could possibly corrupt our youth.

Skip If: Southern accents annoy you endlessly, watching adults whimsically play on a children’s playground in the middle of the day pisses you off because you know kids want a chance to swing on the swings too, or if the idea seeing Thomas Calabro play a douchebag ad exec instead of a douchebag doctor throws you off too much.

Final Rating: ★ ★ ★ (★) ☆

Official Map: TILO Commuter Rail – Ticino, Switzerland and Lombardy, Italy

The emergence of a unified Europe has led to a gradual but noticeable blurring of borders between countries in Europe, which now seem to often exist only on maps. With free and easy travel between the European countries that are bound by the Schengen Agreement, it’s not impossible for people to live in one country and work in another, especially when they live close to a border.

This map shows transit services in such an area, the border between Italy and Switzerland north of Milan. Here, Italian Lombardy (shown with a grey background) borders the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino (white background). Transit between the two areas is becoming more intertwined and reliable, as this map illustrates. The services offered by the issuer of the map – TILO – are the two-digit “S-number” lines: S10, S20, S30 and the narrow-gauge S-60. However, the map also shows the lines of Milan’s own commuter rail network that interact with these services: the S4, S5, S9 and S11 routes, as well as indicating a (slower) regional service that runs between the two provinces. Even the extent of Milan’s Metro is indicated, as are its interchanges with these commuter rail services.

The map itself is quite handsomely produced, and has a distinctive look of its own. The typeface used – Syntax – has a friendly, slightly quirky look to it that helps lift the map up from that typically efficient but clinical Swiss design. The “subway map” stylings definitely help to convey a sense of modernity and speed, even though the main centres shown on the map would take quite a while to travel between (1.5 hours from Milan to Bellinzona; almost three hours from Milan to Airolo).

If there’s a weakness to the map, it’s probably the multitudes of blue bus routes shown on the Swiss side of the border: they clutter that part of the map with a lot of visual noise and probably don’t contain enough routing information to be that useful past an initial confirmation that a town is serviced by a bus route.

Our rating: An attractive and modern-looking map that combines information from different transit agencies to benefit its customers: always a good thing! Three-and-a-half stars!

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(Source: Official TILO website)