Friday, July 30, 2010

These Are Their Stories (Kung-kung!)

Artist and pop-culture observer Brandon Bird recently hosted an art show entitled "These Are Their Stories". He invited artists from a variety of mediums to create original artwork based on the one-line Direct TV summary of a Law & Order episode, such as "McCoy Attempts to Convict Two Bounty Hunters", or "Autopsy Reveals Foul Play." While oddly themed, the show is a natural progression from Bird's previous works, such as his infamous "Law & Order Coloring Book"

The needlepoint above, "Briscoe and Green Search for Lost Customer" by Ellen Schinderman, is a standout, but some of my favourite webcomics artists are also represented, such as Wondermark's David Malki, and Christopher Hastings of Dr. McNinja.

Here is a link to all the works from These Are Their Stories; they are definitely worth checking out, as are Bird's other works, such as "No One Wants to Play Sega with Harrison Ford."

Speaking of webcomics, if you have any appreciation for the absurd, I cannot recommend highly enough that you check out the current team-up between Dr. McNinja and cult webcomic hero Axe Cop. While Dr. McNinja is a brilliantly random and well-illustrated webcomic which reminds me a lot of Mike Baron's The Badger, Axe Cop is a comic written by a 6 year old and illustrated by his 29 year old brother, and it combines whimsy, immediacy and nihilism in the way only a 6 year old can. I swear, this kid could teach David Mamet a thing or two about moving a story along.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

No Sound of Ghostly Wings

Thanks to my dad, with his 5 years service in the RCAF and another 5 in the RCN as well as a career in air traffic control, I got to go to a lot of airshows when I was a kid. Seeing the Snowbirds innumerable times, I never got tired of them, and they share fond memory space with high speed/low level passes, vintage aircraft doing Cuban Eights, afterburners, wing walkers and a twilight JATO demonstration.

Although I have a soft spot for several civilian aircraft, like the GeeBee Air Racer and Ford Tri-Motor, the military planes have always been my favourites, and although I might have a hard time deciding between jets and prop jobs depending on my mood, my favourite WWII aircraft has been the Corsair for as long as I can remember.

Strangely, this is not due to the popularity of "Black Sheep Squadron", a TV program from my youth that followed Greg "Pappy" Boyington and his wingmates around the Pacific theatre in their Corsairs. No, it was mostly from seeing them fly with groups like the Western Warbirds, and in truth, it has less to do with the sight than it does the sound.

The Pratt & Whitney 2000 horsepower engine isn't necessarily any louder than the Mercury Merlin engine of the Spitfire or the Mustang's Packard V-12, but the Corsair's engine has a throaty bass note that is felt more than heard. To even listen to a Corsair idling up to the ready line is to listen to a beast straining to be unleashed. In trying to describe the acoustic difference, I've always compared the Mustang to a new Ferrari, while the Corsair sounds like a vintage Barracuda; speed compared to muscle.

Then of course there is the look of the plane itself: the bent wings give it a predatory air while the monstrous 13 foot propeller affects the entire front aspect of the aircraft, hinting at tremendous speed and power. The large propeller makes for a smaller undercarriage at the rear, which, combined with how far back the cockpit sits from the nose, gives the Corsair a rakish appearance even at rest.

I was thrilled to hear that one of my favourite planes was making a visit to Edmonton, and learned a lot I didn't know beforehand, including a linkage between the Victoria Cross and Kokanee beer.

The Gray Ghost is a lovingly reconditioned FG-1D Corsair, originally built by Goodyear (because manufacturer Vought couldn't meet the demand) for the British Fleet Air Arm, which was a revelation to me; I had no idea that the British used American fighters on their carriers. This also gave it a nice tie-in to Canada's Naval Centenary, which is the occasion for the visit.

This particular plane is painted in the livery of Lt. Robert Hammond Gray, who was born in Trail, B.C., and attended both UBC and the U of A before enlisting in the Naval Reserve in 1940. After flying Hawker Hurricanes in Africa for a time, he qualified for the Corsair in 1944 and joined the complement of HMS Formidable, and while I knew Canadian pilots served in the RAF and fought in the Battle of Britain, I had never imagined a Canuck Corsair pilot, my second discovery.

The British Corsairs were originally painted in a disruption pattern, but were later painted the uniform 'shipyard blue' of their American counterparts. In order to reduce the likelihood of friendly fire, the familiar red 'bullseye' (too similar to the Hinomaru markings of Japanese planes) seen on RAF planes was discarded on Fleet Air Arm planes, and a white bar placed on either side of the circle, making it similar to markings found on USAF F-4U Corsairs.

Lt. Gray was mentioned in despatches and received the Distinguished Service Cross before his 1841 squadron was involved in an attack on a Japanese destroyer in Onagawa Bay. Despite his airplane being hit and catching fire, he never broke off his attack run and scored a direct hit on the destroyer with a 1000 lb. bomb, sinking it. Unable to recover, his Corsair crashed into the bay and was destroyed, and his body never recovered. For this act, he was awarded the British Commonwealth's highest honour, the Victoria Cross, and is the last Canadian to have received it.

Six days, later, on August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered, ending the Second World War, and making Robert Hampton Gray one of Canada's last casualties. He was 27 years old.

Unfortunately, the Gray Ghost flew in to Edmonton while I was at work, because I had every intention of bringing the girls down to the City Centre Airport so they could see and, more importantly, hear this piece of flying history. As it was, the nice gentleman at the Alberta Aviation Museum was kind enough to let us past the ropes for a few pictures, which will have to suffice.

I was certainly glad for the opportunity to learn about Lt. Robert Hampton Gray, who would probably still be a cipher to me if not for this plane and its tour of western Canada. Fenya and Glory listened intently when I told them about the Victoria Cross and how he earned it, and about an affection for the Corsair that has lasted since my childhood.

After the war, two memorials were dedicated to Lt. Gray. In 2006, he was commemorated by a granite monument by Onagawa Bay, the only foreign serviceman to be so honoured on Japanese soil. In a culture that venerates courage so highly, it is hard to imagine greater praise.

In 1946, a mountain in British Columbia was named after Lt. Gray and his brother John, who was also killed in WWII. Grays Peak is in Kokanee Glacier National Park, and is the mountain pictured on the label of the eponymous beer.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Burning Bows and Sleeping Swords

Like a lot of people I know, my first exposure to the hymn Jerusalem was through a Monty Python comedy routine. In the sketch, a salesperson in a department store would put a bag on his head upon hearing the word 'mattress', forcing a co-worker to stand in a tea chest and sing: "And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England's mountain's green..."

Some time later I would hear the same verse in the interlude of Supertramp's Fool's Overture, and still later I would hear a cover of the tune in its entirety by British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Fenya's first exposure to the tune was when I put a 'terrace singing' rendition on a disk of football songs for the World Cup back in June, as Jerusalem has become the unofficial anthem for many of England's sporting teams. Despite her lack of familiarity with the tune, she still volunteered to sing it in church today. The words to Jerusalem are actually William Blake's poem, "And did those feet in ancient times", and relates to an apocryphal story of a youthful Jesus visiting England with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

An actual trip by Jesus from Judea to England seems a little unlikely to me, even if such a trip would not have crossed the borders of the Roman Empire of the day. Even Blake seems uncertain, as he never actually asserts the presence of Jesus, but poses four questions instead. What I like best about the poem is Blake's assertion that building a better and more peaceful world cannot be left solely to divine intervention, but that he and like-minded people must struggle to create it. Obviously, there will always be a number of ideas as to how best to accomplish this, but Blake's stark imagery of "dark Satanic mills" makes it pretty clear that he was not counting on the Industrial Revolution to provide the answers. Sir Hubert Parry added the music in 1916, and the resulting hymn, Jerusalem, has been a popular part of England's musical history ever since.

Our church does a lot of fill-ins over the summer, and this Sunday both our minister and our regular organist were away on vacation. Our lay-minister Nancy was able to organize the service, and Mr. Puffer was more than willing to accompany Fenya on the organ, and was even able to meet with her earlier in the week to rehearse.

Unfortunately, I neglected to aquire a proper video camera prior to her performance, and our camera can only do about 90 seconds at a time, so I recorded the first part of the song during her rehearsal before church, and the second part during her performance in the service.

While Fenya did an admirable job with a difficult piece of music, what makes me proudest is her willingness to perform it publicly in the first place. It was a great experience for Fenya, and her choice made a lot of people in church very happy, especially one English ex-pat who says it is her favourite.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Stuff of Dreams

I don't get to the theatres nearly as often as I would like, but I got there tonight to see Inception, and I am damned glad I did.

Forgetting for a moment how cool I think writer/director Christopher Nolan is after giving us films like Memento and The Dark Knight; disregarding how much I love movies that ask serious questions about the way we perceive reality; never minding how much respect I have for those who can pull off a taut, emotional drama, a caper film and a number of incredible action set pieces, LET ALONE ALL OF THIS IN A SINGLE MOVIE.

Having decided ages ago I was going to see this movie, and knowing the kind of film it was intended to be, and how close to the vest Nolan was keeping the plot, I was actively avoiding trailers, interviews,'behind the scenes' snippets and even reviews so I wouldn't have too many expectations and so I could enjoy being surprised. Obviously I wish the same for you, and so I will be keeping this post as spoiler-free as possible.

First and foremost, this is not a movie for everyone, even though it has something for everyone; it is not only a trippy concept, this running around in the dreamscapes of others, but the structure of the movie itself is extremely complex. Like Memento, this is not a movie you can half-watch, and you will want to empty your bladder immediately beforehand, lest you be forced to miss a critical juncture. However, even if the sci-fi Jungian element of a shared unconscious leaves you cold, the emotional journey of Leonardo Dicaprio (and his effective and understated portrayal of it) is sound. Even if you prefer your storytelling linear and non-composited, the action set-pieces and caper elements are consistent and well thought out, especially those that take full advantage of the dreamscape's possibilities.

Comparisons to The Matrix are inevitable; both films deal with the possibility that reality is not what we think it is, both films take great pains to make sure the viewer understands the rules of the new reality, but while The Matrix does a better job with the rules, the more complex story and greater emotional heft of Inception make it a better film, at least in my opinion.

Inception is not perfect by any means; there are a number of times where the story takes a turn, or new rules are added, and you have to grip the armrests and be pulled along for the ride, taking it on faith that better comprehension will come in a moment, which usually happens. It is a movie that because of the subject matter, is difficult, if not impossible to anticipate, at least most of the time. I also found myself struggling to make out some of Ken Watanabe's dialogue at times.

Highlights include the savvy internationalism of the movie, great performances by everyone, and a fantastic, simple and powerful score by Hans Zimmer, who also scored Batman Begins and The Dark Knight for Nolan. As far as the visuals go, well, this kind of movie, maybe even more than Lord of the Rings, is why sepecial effects were invented; to tell stories about the impossible, without making you worry about seeing the strings or mirrors.

Christopher Nolan has not only promised us a third Batman film, but has also agreed to 'godfather' the re-boot of the Superman franchise. Even though these two characters are completely different and will require handling in completely different fashions, Nolan's sure-handed approach to the fantastic and the impossible, and the real human stories they can contain, make me very optimistic for these films, as well as anything else he should turn his gaze to.

Go see Inception, and quickly; the ending alone merits another blog entry, and I don't know if I can wait until the DVD release...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Swiss Justice?

It seems that once again, fugitive director Roman Polanski has eluded justice. Swiss officials denied an extradition request because "it was not possible to exclude with the necessary certainty a fault in the US extraditionary request," according to The Guardian. Polanski is once again a free man.

While the Swiss have been quick to point out that their decision has no bearing on Polanski's guilt or innocence, it's hard to take them seriously when they won't do their part to give Polanski the day in court which he has spent most of his adult life pushing the snooze alarm on.

I suppose it is possible that the U.S. will now abandon their pursuit of Polanski, since they can say, "hey, we did our part, but the Europeans won't give him up," but I would be very surprised if they did. Even if they had no interest in saving face, prosecutors are human, and will probably take some measure of spiteful satisfaction in greatly restricting Polanski's travels for the remainder of his life. That said, however, it would be curious to see how emboldened he might be if they publicly claimed to be abandoning their pursuit in hopes of apprehending him during a future excursion. ("Hmm, apparently I've won a boat. Marvelous! Pack your bags, schatzi!")

I appreciate Polanski's desire to avoid potential incarceration, and his efforts to avoid extradition are only natural, if unfortunate and unwarranted. The Swiss are apparently unwilling to share complicity with the U.S. by simply turning him over, and have instead attempted to circumvent matters and using international legalities to put the ball into someone (anyone) else's court. My greatest disappointment will be in all the Hollywood glitterati and the others who now come forth expressing support for this 'tortured genius'.

I imagine Polanski will keep his travels limited to France for the immediate future, and so I don't expect we will hear about this matter in the press for quite some time, so I thought I would pre-emptively address some of the interview fodder which will undoubtedly crop up in the intervening time.

His wife was killed by the Mansons! Hasn't he suffered enough? (alt)
He was imprisoned during the Holocaust, where he was orphaned! Hasn't he suffered enough?

First of all, hands up if you want a justice system based on suffering. Yeah, that's about what I thought. Secondly, while factors like these might be factored into sentencing, they do not allow the transgressor to select their own punishment, which in this case amounts to half-assed house arrest practically anywhere on the planet that isn't the United States or Great Britain. Being a victim does not entitle you to victimize others, and I find this particular defense of Polanski's indefensible actions to be nothing short of reprehensible.

The judge backed out of a standing deal, why shouldn't Polanski have run?
Because he avoided a chance to have the entire matter cleared up. Since Polanski never returned to court after his evaluation period, we'll never know what might have transpired, and even if the judge could have been counted on to give an honest and accurate answer, he's dead now. Even if there were improprieties or inconsistencies in the way the case and sentencing were handled (and there is certainly evidence to suggest this), there are mechanisms in place to deal with them. After obtaining a very lenient arrangement due to plea bargain, Polanski fled at the first sign that things might be changing against his favour, and since then has done absolutely nothing to resolve the matter. His best response to a judge potentially breaking a written plea agreement is to leg it out of the country, pretend it never happened and start 'dating' 15 year-old Nastassja Kinski. For all his talk about putting this matter behind him, Polanski has made very little effort to do so, which is hardly surprising when you consider that he does not feel he did anything wrong. "I like young girls," he admits in the documentary Wanted and Desired. "I think most men do." Or perhaps more plainly spoken in his 1979 interview with Martin Amis: "If I had killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But… f—ing, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to f— young girls. Juries want to f— young girls. Everyone wants to f— young girls!"

Even the victim in the case wants the issue dropped! What about her wishes?
Regardless of the victim's wishes, capital-S Society, under its guise as The Law, has an obligation to prosecute crimes as serious as child molestation is; such an act cannot simply be allowed to fade away Douglas MacArthur style. And while you certainly don't want to prolong the suffering of the victim, her request would have been significantly more credible if she had made it prior to negotiating a cash settlement from Polanski in 1993.

As an individual, there is not a lot I can do about a situation like this, but I can continue to do what I have always done: as long as he lives, Polanski does not get one nickle of my money until he faces justice or the case is dropped. I didn't go see Ghost Writer, I still haven't seen The Pianist, and I won't even take Chinatown out from the library, let alone rent it from Blockbuster.

I have no delusions that Polanski is going to give a flying prepubescent fig about one less person opting out of seeing his movies, but it's what I can do so I am doing it. Furthermore, I am not being quiet about it. When people talk about how much cooler Adrien Brody is in Predators than he was in The Pianist, I will pipe right up with, "Oh, I don't actually watch Polanski's films. He's got a court date to sort out first."

This will sometimes prompt a discussion that one should 'judge the art, not the artist', and had Polanski stood up and taken his medicine, I would happily entertain this notion. It's not a question of quality; I just can't stomach a child rapist and fugitive making money off of the society he's wronged before paying his debt.

Other people will, knowingly or unknowingly, decide otherwise, and that's fine. Everyone has to make their own decision, but there is not a movie on earth I need to see so badly that I am willing to line Polanski's pocket to do it.

This is not to say that I feel morally superior to those who do choose to see his movies, or those who choose to act in them, for that matter. Sure, I'm disappointed that someone whose work I admire, like Martin Scorcese, would choose to be a Polanski apologist , but that's a person with a difference of opinion, not a fugitive. Like Malcolm Reynolds, I reserve any feelings of moral superiority I might harbour for those I actually am superior to.

Like unrepentant child rapists who flee justice.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fun with Zombies, Gunfighters, Viral Hemmorhagic Fever and Cthulhu

Mission Fun And Games in St. Albert recently had a sale to celebrate their twentieth year of business. That's a real accomplishment for any independent store, let alone a brick and mortar game shop, and with their entire store going for 20% off, well, only a fool would let an opportunity to swing by and congratulate them pass by, right?

The danger in a store like this to me, specifically, is two-fold: the first being that I like games, you know, like, a lot.

And pretty much all types, too. I like board games, card games, war games, dice games, party games, role-playing games...pretty much everything except head games, and yes, that includes the song by Foreigner.

The second threat is my uncanny ability to rationalize purchases: 'it was on sale', 'it's out of print now', 'a portion of the proceeds go to charity', 'he seemed like a good guy and he said the beans are magic!', et cetera. Luckily my wife has developed what amounts to a highly evolved resistance to these rationalizations, and I have a deep and abiding desire to remain both married and ambulatory, so I managed to restrict myself.

Having now played all the games at least once, I thought I would share my findings with the like-minded among you.

Bang is an Italian card game that recreates the gunfights seen in spaghetti-westerns, complete with shifting allegiances and ambiguous loyalties. It is fast, fun, and easy enough to play that both Fenya and Glory enjoyed it, although a lot of time was lost trying to explain exactly what the hell a spaghetti western is to an 8 and 11 year old.

Each player takes on a role of either Sheriff, Outlaw or Renegade; the Sheriff has to kill the Outlaws before they do the same to him, while the Renegade wants the Sheriff's job, and so has to arrange it that he is the last man standing. In larger games, there are also Deputies to aid the Sheriff. The only role known to all the players is the Sheriff; all the other ones need to be deduced.

In addition to having a role, each player is also given a Character, and that character has a special ability, like 'Calamity Janet', who allows her player to exchange 'Bang!' cards for 'Missed!' cards, and vice versa, or 'Vulture Sam', who gets to collect all the cards from an eliminated player.

Most of the game consists of playing a 'Bang!' card against an opponent, who can thwart you by playing a 'Missed!' card in response, so it is fairly straightforward. Three or four un-missed bangs will eliminate that player. One complication, however, is that the opposing player's relative position to you at the table defines what the the range is between your characters, and at the start, you can only shoot the players to your immediate left or right. Later on, you may find a Schofield, allowing you to shoot a player two seats away, or a Mustang, which increases the distance others see you at by one, but in the meantime, your targets are limited, and you are already in a fight.

The edition I got not only included three expansions (High Noon, Dodge City, and A Fistful of Cards), but also came in a very large bullet that serves as the storage container. Oh, and best of all, there is a devastating but fickle card called 'Dynamite' that circulates between players until it explodes. Glee!

One of the primary motivators in picking up this game is that it is playable by ages 8 and up, making it a good choice for the family, but I am looking forward to playing this one with the lads, as it is highly competitive and quite a bit of fun. You do need a minimum of four players however, and a maximum of eight.

Game design legend Steve Jackson takes less of a lead in the running of his company these days, which frees him up for more actual design work, and after a career spanning four decades and having produced Ogre, GURPS, Car Wars, Chez Geek, and his most prosperous creation to date, Munchkin, it's clear to me at least that this was the right choice. Take his most recent dice game, Cthulhu dice.

I have a weakness for cool looking dice, it must be said, and this game has one of the coolest, but having played the flash game version on the SJGames website, I was impressed by the simplicity of the premise, the speed of play, and its inherent vindictiveness.

Each player begins with three marbles, representing his sanity. He picks a player to roll against, and the victim rolls back. Depending on the result, the Victim may lose sanity to either the Caster or to Cthulhu, who resides in the centre of the table. He may also gain sanity from the Cthulhu, but if dread Cthulhu himself is ever rolled, then every player loses one sanity to him! Mad players (having lost all their marbles, waw-wah!) continue to roll, hoping the Elder Sign will show Cthulhu's favour and return at least some of their sanity.

The object of the game is to be the only sane one left, and it is not always assured that there will be anyone left sane by the end, which just adds to the fun.

You can theoretically play with two people (each playing two cultists with their own set of marbles), but you really should have at least three, and five is best yet. There are enough marbles for six, and you could theoretically play with more, but it would make for a long wait between turns.

A very entertaining game, which can be taught in about 5 minutes to a group of new players, and can be transported quite handily in a dice bag.

I love the idea of collaborative games, they are part of the reason I enjoy RPGs so much. When I first read about Pandemic about three years ago, the concept of a team of 2-5 players racing around the globe in an effort to stop a global health catastrophe seemed like a very sound premise. Since its release in 2009, they have already spawned an expansion, which I considered promising since if no one liked it, it's not likely they would have bothered to make one, right?

Each turn, each player draws cards to determine which city a disease, represented by wooden blocks in four different colours, is going to strike. If there are three blocks already on a given city , an outbreak occurs, and an additional block is placed on each adjoining city. If one of those cities also has three blocks on it, another outbreak occurs, and so on. The game is lost at the 8th outbreak, or when you can't place any more blocks for a given colour due to running out.

Players have cards with the names of cities on them, and can use 5 cards of the same colour to cure that disease, provided they can reach a research centre. They can also discard a card to travel directly to that city, or, if they are already there, build a research centre instead. They can also give a card to another player, but they must both be in the city named on the card in order to do this, so you can see that some coordination is called for, especially since you aren't able to see the cards of the other players! If they are in a city with a disease block, they can discard one block, hopefully preventing an outbreak.

Each player also has a role which comes with a special ability: the Researcher can trade cards in any city; the Scientist only needs four cards of one colour to find a cure, the Medic can remove all disease blocks from a city, the Dispatcher can mov another player's pawn, and the Operations Expert can build a research centre in the city he is in without having that card.

Periodically, players will draw an Epidemic card from the player deck, which means the city at the bottom of the Infection deck gets three disease blocks and all the cities previously drawn get shuffled up and placed back on top of the infection deck, making an outbreak almost inevitable. Once you haved cured the fourth disease, you win.

This is a game for ages 10 and up, so the three of us played while Glory was away camping with a friend. Thanks to the game's simple yet elegant mechanics, Fenya caught on right away, even pointing out options Audrey and I hadn't considered yet. ("Daddy, instead of you using three actions to give me your cards, why don't you just spend one to take one of mine? You can cure Black with your five cards then, right?")

We lost our first game, but triumphed in the second, even though we continued to use the 'Introductory' rules which allowed us to keep all of our cards face up like a virtual hive mind. There are two additional levels of difficulty, Normal and Heroic, and the "On The Brink" expansion apparently includes a Legendary level, as well as a fifth disease strain and scenarios like "Bio Terrorist", where one player works against the others. I think Normal level will provide more than enough challenge for the three of us for the nonce, but it's nice to know that there is variety available in the future.

Pandemic is probably my favourite of the games I got at the Mission sale. It has decent production values, a sharp looking board, and good quality cards. As opposed to dice, the card-based mechanic brings just the right combination of random and inevitable, which results in a very dramatic game. ("No, not Sao Paulo again! It'll take forever to get there from Karachi!")

Steve Jackson's second dice-based game, Zombie Dice is a cup with thirteen dice in three different colours.

These dice represent the victims that you, as a zombie, are trying to catch in order to snack on their brains. The colour represents their relative toughness, with green being the easiest, yellow being tougher, and red being very hard indeed. Each turn you draw three random dice and roll: a picture of a brain means you caught him and ate it, footprints are one that got away (and which can get re-rolled next time) and a blast represents your zombie being shotgunned. Each turn you decide whether or not to press your luck and keep chasing brains, but when you roll your third blast, your turn ends and you lose any brains you got up to that point. Ending a round with the most brains after 13 makes you the winner.

This simple 'press your luck' mechanic means a game between two players can still be entertaining. Again, you could theoretically play with as many players as you want, but the wait between turns could get interminable. There are two opportunities for fate to fickle-ize you; first with the dice you draw ("Two reds and a yellow? Argh...") and then again with the throw of the dice themselves, so there is a little room for strategery, but daring and luck will win or lose the day for most players.

Steve Jackson gave a prototype of the game to Howard Tayler, creator of the sci-fi webcomic Scholck Mercenary, who wrote a great little essay about the surprising roleplaying potential of the game. For instance, everyone already knows three red dice are bad news, but you are already obliged to roll, so cracking a line like, "Special Forces, eh? Let's see if you taste special..." adds a whole new dimension to play.

Another accessible and easy to learn game with a minimum of rules and lots of portability, a game rarely lasts more than ten minutes, so Zombie Dice is probably the game which has seen the most play of the four I got at the sale.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


A colleague at work confided that Canada Day is his absolute favourite holiday, since he is not religious.

"How do you observe?" I asked him.

"Well, I usually go down to the Leg grounds for the pancake breakfast (which is a great example of the cultural mosaic at work by the way, since it is hosted by the Ismaili Muslim community, and flapjacks are not necessarily a part of the traditional middle eastern experience), and I also like to see the new Canadian citizens get sworn in."

"That's awesome!" I said.

"Yeah, I love the look on their faces," he continued, "It's like they've won the lottery because, well, they kind of have."

Who better than new Canadians to remind us of the awesome country we live in? Sure, it's a country like a lot of others, and one with its own fair share of idiosyncrasies, challenges and just flat-out problems, but there is nowhere else quite like it, and nowhere I'd rather raise my family.

This year our family ended up heading out to Leduc for Canada Day, the city I grew up in (although it was a town for most of my childhood), and the place where my sister recently purchased a house.

Since she has a much larger and neater backyard than we do, I was looking forward to putting up the badminton net, drinking a Neapolean (an Alley Kat Stout that, hand to God, tastes like Neapolitan ice cream) and perhaps throwing around the Nerf football with my daughters a bit. I hadn't given too much thought about actual observances; I mean, since I am a Canadian, isn't anything I do on this holiday pretty much a de facto observance?

Probably not.

At any rate, we did end up on Main Street to watch the parade, which I found surprisingly enjoyable. There were not a whole lot of floats, but I like to watch the Legion Colour Guard followed by the Mounties, and my parents also drove a scooter wearing their Legion uniforms, which was a big thrill to Fenya and Glory.

There were a number of really cool vintage cars, and a couple of very old oil-burning tractors which appealed to the history buff in me, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how much enjoyment I still get from being in close proximity to a shiny fire engine with its lights and siren going. One engine had a motto painted upon the glass over the side door which read, "Everyone comes home" in script, which I found peculiarly moving for such a simple sentiment. Still, a good sentiment hardly needs complexity, right?

Retiring to the backyard after the parade, we played a little badminton until the wind made it impractical, played some catch, and my mum brought a game called Ladderball which involves throwing tiny bolas at a set of coloured ladder rungs. It's a simple enough game once you get the fundamentals of throwing down, but aI have to tell you, the first time you snag the target with a bola and the balls pass each other a couple of times until they have completely wrapped around the rung, you totally feel like Batman. "Why do cops waste their time with batons when they could carry these" I thought to myself.

By the time we had cooked some smokies on Tara's firepit, my mid-day triple-shot frappucino had worn off and I was feeling pretty fatigued, but I was not about to be the party-pooper, and I joined everyone at the ball diamond by the Leduc Recreation Centre (which I grew up knowing as the Black Gold Centre) for a free rock concert and fireworks display.

I texted a couple of people my location and the fact that I was watching 80s rockers Harlequin warm up the crowd for Darby Mills and The Headpins, and was delighted when Island Mike replied that he was on a Parksville beach listening to Trooper at the same time. Retro night indeed.

To be frank, I probably like slightly more Harlequin songs than Headpins songs, but I would not really call myself a fan of either band. Harlequin is clearly one of those bands that is happy and grateful to be able to hit the road and play, but the lead vocalist has a hard time reaching the pitch of his heyday, and occasionally sounded like a karaoke singer stepping outside his range.

Darby Mills, on the other hand, sounds even better than she did in her heyday. Her voice has gotten smoother and smokier, although she is no torch singer. (The hats on the merch table read "Headpins: 30 Years of Loud".) And for a lady who just turned 50, she looks great as well, and I don't just mean her figure (which even my sister commented on as being stupendous), but very fit, which makes sense as it turns out that she teaches tae kwon do when she isn't touring.

The fireworks display which wrapped up the night was wonderful. I mean, even a small fireworks show is fun, and this one ran for about a quarter hour and had a great variety of effects.

It made for a long and somewhat tiring day, and the following day at work was a little brutal, but I was still glad I relented and didn't end the evening prematurely. All in all, one of the better Canada Days I can remember, spent with my family in the place I grew up. What could be more Canadian than that?