Saturday, October 30, 2010

Making Tracks: Leman Russ Vanquisher

The Leman Russ tank is the workhorse of the Imperial Guard army, appearing in more than a half-dozen variants, with weaponry ranging from a stock battle cannon to the Executioner plasma cannon.  The Vanquisher is a dedicated anti-armour tank, and draws heavily on the German Tiger of WWII as its inspiration.

All Russ variants are built from a standard chassis, so modeling a lower profile hull requires more time, energy and experience than I am prepared to expend.  I settled for using the resin turret I purchased from Forgeworld ages ago, which not only sports the immense Vanquisher cannon, but is also about one third lower than the standard turret.  To keep the aspect lean and mean, I left off the optional side sponsons, which, while increasing the firepower, also brings a matching increase in the points value of the tank.  I did opt to upgrade the hull-mounted heavy bolter to a lascannon, so if the turret should become disabled, it can still serve as a tank-hunter of sorts.  I added the track-guards initially out of esthetics, but also use them to reflect the extra armour upgrade, making the tank a bit more resilient. 

I was unsure exactly how I was going to set up the camo pattern on my tanks, but a staffer at The Game Store in Red Deer (great place if you get a chance to check it out!), told me how he had used Silly Putty as a mask on his WWI models, so I bought a couple of eggs worth at Toys R Us.  After priming the entire model white, one egg was sufficient to cover about half the hull and turret in a vaguely striped design, which I then sprayed with a can of positively ancient Shadow Grey spray, which has been out of production for many years. 

It only took about ten minutes of shaking to get the marble loose enough that I was willing to gamble using the spray; removing paint from plastic models is exceedingly tedious and not always effective, while re-priming the model always results in a significant loss of detail, so I was a little skittish, but it turned out pretty well.  The Silly Putty worked well and came off fairly easily once the spray was dry.  The only down side was that the colour of the spray was not only different from the Shadow Grey I had in a pot, but required a mix of Shadow Grey, Space Wolf Grey and a touch of Scaly Green just to get close!  This meant touch ups and corrections were going to be a real chore.  On the plus side, the colour settled well and left its own highlights on many of the edges and high points, so I will definitely be using it again.

I used a wash of Devlan Mud to weather the hull , but it didn't dry evenly, and made a bit of a mess in some places.  I was mostly able to cover it up, and where I couldn't, it ended up looking like a little more grease or grime, and did help to contribute to making the tank look more lived in.  I added some black triangles to reinforce the disruption pattern of the camo and to provide a little contrast as well.

I had already decided to use white uniforms on my officers and veterans, so I painted the tank commander likewise.  He had more detail than I expected to find, which made him a bit more difficult to paint, especially as I was trying to complete it before Sunday's Halloween and birthday shenanigans.  Still, I am pretty happy with how he turned out, and intend to use him as tank ace Knight Commander Pask.  The tank itself I intended to call 'Snow Tiger' from the get-go, and added the name to the turret, with some Cyrillic letters thrown in here as well as in the tank number for good measure.

Looking at it now, I realize I still need to finish off the backpack sitting on the back of the hull, and also want to find a space to add some 'kill markings', but it is certainly ready for the tabletop as is, and those additions shouldn't take more than a moment or two next week prior to varnishing it.

Having had some of the pieces for this army for over a decade (like Snow Tiger's Vanquisher turret), and the rest from when I left Games Workshop in 2007, it feels really good to finally be putting paint to it, and and more importantly, to be excited about painting the rest of the army as well.  Last week I traded some product still in shrink wrap for the rest of the vehicles I need for the army and did a quick tally of the 80 or so foot models that will make up the non-tracked complement.  It will be a bit of a slog in places (i.e. 80+ foot models), but I am confident I will have a field-worthy force by the time G&G VI comes around!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Could Cartoon Dragons Win the War on Terror?

Hear me out.

The four of us recently watched the CG animated film How to Train Your Dragon, having heard a lot of good things about it, and a good time was had by all.  This is not just a movie for kids or families, either; if you enjoyed the first Shrek or slightly older films like The Iron Giant, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

It's a great little fantasy tale set on an island populated by Scots-accented vikings and their American-accented children.  As the narrator, Hiccup, explains, it's a nice enough place, except for the repeated dragon attacks.  Now, fighting off legendary beasts is the bread and butter of any self respecting viking, but Hiccup doesn't have a lot of brawn, so he tries to contribute by creating traps and weapons he hopes will help defend his village and redeem him in the eyes of his father.

Right away you have all the components for your standard-issue 'believe in yourself' young adult morality tale; take an outsider, add some parental estrangement, real skills unappreciated by peers, and you can just about start colouring in the numbers, right?  But after Hiccup successfully captures one of the fiercer varieties of dragons, the real story begins.

I don't want to give too much away here, and I sincerely believe anyone who considers this blog even vaguely entertaining should just go and watch this film right now, but in short, Hiccup has to juggle new-found knowledge of his people's mortal enemies against his learning to slay them, and the cultural acceptance this is going to bring him.

The writing and pacing are deft, there are no dull moments, the voice acting and characterizations are brilliant and the action sequences, especially those focused on flying, are spectacular.  In fact, I found myself really regretting not having seen it in 3D in the theatre.

The creature work on the differing types of dragons is terrific, and the animation on Toothless, the principle dragon, is priceless.  I can't remember the last time I saw an animated creature this expressive, but I bet Chuck Jones drew it, whatever it was.  And watching the making-of features on the DVD shows just how much care and attention they put into the smallest details, such as the characteristics of the differing types of fire each species of dragon produces,

Where I started thinking about the movie as metaphor though, was a moment when Hiccup looks at Toothless, realizing how much they have in common, and says, "Everything we know about you guys is wrong."  This scrawny, sardonic viking became my new benchmark for courage when he goes to his father and tries to explain how they don't have to be consigned to an eternity of conflict because it turns out they may share a common enemy.

Next year will be ten years since 9/11, and despite the fact that there have been no other attacks on the United States, I don't think too many of us would consider the world a significantly safer or saner place to live.  Canadian troops will be removed from combat operations in Afghanistan, and unless deliberate care is taken, it could be very easy for groups like the Taliban to exert control again.  Still though, there is resistance and apprehension about inviting the Taliban to peace talks and the possibility of government representation.

I have a hard time with this; ten years of trying to build peace through primarily military means hasn't led to a lot of gains.  While a lot of Taliban camps and troops have been disrupted , relocated or killed, new recruits pour in all the time, and territories purchased with blood in prior campaigns has been ceded back due to an inability to hold them.  It is difficult to see the point in non-military ventures like schools, roads and wells, if Afghan residents are terrified of using them for fear of retaliation by the Taliban.

It is imperative that any chance to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table be seized, even if it means an amnesty to those who have killed our troops with IEDs or buying them outright.  A military-only solution will only work if the potential for killing every last single man-jack of them exists, and as long as the west appears to be motivated by vengeance or greed (thanks Dubya), this is a mathematical impossibility.  Let's face it, when your opponent lives like a caveman and has absolutely no fear of death, you've lost an awful lot of leverage as far as conventional warfare is concerned.  (I'd be terrified to read an alternate history where the two cold war superpowers were the British Empire and a Taliban-style hegemony, where the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction was replaced by the fear of not getting your shots in first, but that's another story...) 

The moment the extremists come to the table and feel they have a voice, lasting peace becomes a lot more viable.  I don't know how you address the fact that the Taliban are the original 'nothing to lose/better to burn out than to fade away' crowd, so I have no idea how you keep them at the table, or even force them to abide by decisions made at the table, but without a dialogue, no long term solution can be reached.

I've been a vocal supporter of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan since it began, and still believe in it, but the lack of gains in building infrastructure and winning the 'hearts and minds' side of things makes me very fearful of the future, especially after Canada and the other western nations start pulling out.  I still have hope, though, foolish as it may be.  "They've killed hundreds of us!" Hiccup's father rails at him.  "We've killed thousands of them!" retorts Hiccup.

It should be mentioned that this movie is not just a thinly veiled metaphor for current events, but the timeless truths behind alienation, suspicion and the shifty, blurring line between defense and revenge seems to resonate with this particular struggle really well.  Despite having a worthy message and theme, How to Train Your Dragon deftly manages to avoid being preachy or ham-handed, and is a ripping adventure tale to boot.  It has a lot of good things to say about not just taking a stand, but the consequences of taking one, something often overlooked in family movies.

I dearly wish someone would translate this film into Arabic, and Israeli, and Pashtun, and Urdu, and Congolese, and Tamil, and a hundred other languages as well, and air drop it into conflict areas along with the containers of distilled water and Pop-Tarts.  (I'm not sure how they would watch them, some other blog can sort that out.)  I hope a bunch of kids all over the world see this movie, like mine did, and they hear Hiccup say, "I wouldn't kill him because he looked as frightened as I was. I looked at him and I saw myself." 

I hope they remember it, and they don't let that feeling get coerced, co-opted or beaten out of them by jaded adults who will try to convince them that it isn't that simple, that the world doesn't really work that way, because it could if enough of us wanted it to.  The real enemy, the true terror, is being afraid to try.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Summer in the City

"All around you, people lookin' half dead
Walkin' on a sidewalk hotter than a match head..."

This photograph was originally in colour, but I recently scanned it in black and white because that's how I picture it in my mind's eye.

It is from our trip to Toronto in the summer of 2004; Glory had recently turned two and Fenya was five-and-a-half.  We stayed with Audrey's sister Vera as well as some friends from church.  Despite having lived there from 1995-1999, we'd already forgotten how oppressive the heat and humidity could be, although the additional moisture had a wonderful effect on Fenya's curls.

I took this picture as we rode the streetcar on Lake Shore Blvd. from downtown to our old neighbourhood in Etobicoke where we were staying with the girls' godparents.  I don't recall where we were coming from, but we were sticky and hot and worn out.  We had the streetcar practically to ourselves, so the girls made their way to the open window just ahead of where we were seated to take advantage of the breeze.  Glory was interested in the scenery drifting by, while Fenya was satisfied with closing her eyes and letting the cooler air pass over her.

The almost art-deco chrome of the dated Toronto Transit Commission seats, combined with the brick storefronts (which are far more visible in my memory than in this photo), and the way Glory's sundress strap has almost completely fallen off her shoulder somehow combine to remind me of my childhood in the 1970s, perhaps not exactly as it was, but as an amalgam of my own recollections, movies and television shows I had seen, and books I had read.

There was no place in Leduc in 1975 that looked like 'Sesame Street', or in Edmonton either for that matter.  Bus trips were reserved for school field trips or, once or twice, as Park n Ride excursions to see an Eskimos game at Clarke Field.  I took out a book on marble games from my school library that referenced blue collar New York neighbourhoods like Yonkers and The Bronx, but none of my friends had an interest in playing the ancient games that came from there, even though we all had marbles stashed in a jar or Crown Royal bag.  When I had asked Dad if we could crack open a fire hydrant on a hot summer day, he looked at me in a peculiar fashion and set up a lawn sprinkler instead.

Seeing my daughters at that photo places me simultaneously in the sticky heat of a Toronto summer and in the confabulated warmth of my own childhood memories, when going anyplace was better than being someplace, when I had to climb before sitting, and when a hint of breeze was the best thing in the world.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

With a Little Help from Her Friends

In less than a month, the countdown begins; Fenya will turn twelve, and it will be less than a year until she officially becomes a teenager.

I recognize that a birthday is an arbitrary calendar date, and not a very good benchmark for maturity or anything else, but some of these arbitrary dates carry some philosophical heft nonetheless; no longer considered a child for admission or restaurant kid-menu purposes; able to get a learner's permit; able to drive; able to drink; able to vote.

There is also the shadow of my own mortality that will come hand in glove as my eldest daughter passes another human milestone.  Already she has started the second half (!) of her schooling; there are only five more grades until graduation (not including this one).  Will I be there for her cap and gown or step into a manhole someplace?  Will I see her leave college and start a career or her own family, or will I seize a piston well before that?  Truth be told, I have exactly enough Zen in me to keep myself from worrying too much about things like that; I try to focus more on the things I have a little more influence and control over.

Junior high school was a real time of transition for me; I didn't stay chummy with any of my elementary school friends, and I am at a loss to tell you exactly why that was.  It wasn't a falling out, but I had started hanging out with a different fellow in Grade 6 who ended up going to Catholic school in Edmonton the following year.  I ended up making some new friends in Grade 7 and even better ones in High School, some of whom I am still in contact with, but those transitions weren't always easy.  My kids have never had neighbourhood playmates, and in this day and age, with children who need daytimers to pencil in playdates across town, that seems unlikely to change, and a time without friends is rarely a good time.

I also know that when boys have a falling out, the fists may fly, but when it happens with girls, it is a hundred times worse, as battle lines are drawn, rumours are whispered, allegiances are sought and the weapon of choice is ostracization.  Fenya is a sensitive kid, even more so than I was, so I am probably more anxious about her socialization than she is.  At her age, friends are a key part of developing the attitudes and opinions and behaviours that are going to define her as an adult.  Will they be creative and imaginative, or passive consumers?  Do they look for a tastemaker or support each other in their explorations?  How much authority will they question, and how much will they accept at face value?  Beyond parental fears about drugs and pregnancy and all the rest, there are a hundred little minefields ready to catch a growing young person unawares, and they will look to their friends for strategies and assistance, as well as to the values you've hopefully instilled in them.  With any luck, those friends won't be so obsessed with Jersey Shore or their facebook updates that they neglect their duties as friends.

A parent's role in this is not unlike that of a baseball manager: you train, you advise, you drill, you arrange...and then you let them step to the plate and you pray like hell, because the moment they leave the dugout, there is not a whole lot else you can do.

Still and all, there are positive signs, if I keep my eyes open and wits about me

Fenya recently attended a birthday sleepover with 5 other girls, and the following day, I asked her how it went.  I didn't expect a whole lot of disclosure, and that's fine; what happens at sleepover stays at sleepover after all, but I knew that if it had turned exclusionary or otherwise ugly, she would find a way to let me know, and we could talk it out a little.  Apparently I needn't have worried.

"It was good," she said.  "We went swimming for two hours, and then came back and had pizza, and then watched some movies.  We stayed up until 2 a.m.!  And Autumn's little brother kept coming down and wanting to play Pokemon on the tv, but we said, 'oh, you don't want to stay down here because we are going to be talking about nail polish and boys and stuff like that,' and then I turned to Emily-Claire and said, 'oh my gosh, that shade is just awesome, where did you get it?' and she said, 'oh, I got it at Claire's because it reminded me of this cute sweater I just got...' and then her little brother went like, 'bleah!' and just left, and we went back to watching movies."

"Wow, till 2 a.m.?" I replied.  In my mind, I pictured them all curled up in sleeping bags watching Twilight (even though Fenya is not that big a fan of the movies) or perhaps Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.  The viewing preferences of tweenaged girls as a whole is rather a closed book to me, and regardless of Fenya's tastes, she is obviously going to run with the pack or defer to the host.  "That's pretty cool.  What all did you watch?" 

"All three X-Men movies," she said.  "And I don't think the last one was nearly as bad as you made it out to be, and it has Kitty Pryde in it.  Oh!  And the first time Professor Xavier showed up, Autumn and I looked at each other and went, 'Captain Picard!' and just started laughing, and I don't think all the other girls got it, but they all laughed anyways.  And between movies and afterwards we all talked about what sort of mutant powers we would like to have."

"That's awesome," I said.  "I mean, seriously, that's awesome."

She looked puzzled.  "What do you mean?  Why is it so awesome?"

"Aren't most girls your age watching crap like Big Brother and Another Scary Movie and stuff like that?"

Fenya was dismissive.  "Pfft," she said.  "I suppose.  I dunno."

"It is nothing short of awesome that a group of girls your age, very conscious about their peers and so on, would choose to not only enjoy some non-current adventure films based on comic books, which a lot of other girls would dismiss as guy films based on guy media, and then follow it up not by talking about how cute Hugh Jackman is..."


", it's okay, he is pretty cute, but talk about things in the movie in the context of your own lives.  That is great stuff.  It reminds me of the kind of friends I had in high school, and in college.  Guys like Island Mike and Uncle Jon in Camrose."

She thought for a bit.  "Yeah, I suppose it is kind of awesome, when you put it that way."

"You bet it is," I replied.  "You hang on to those friends.  Those are keepers."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Making Tracks: Valhallan Basilisk

I am hoping to field an Imperial Guard Warhammer 40,000 army next May for G&G VI, and that means I need to start producing some tanks, sharpish.  This is my first attempt at a Valhallan track, the Basilisk, which is not so much a tank (no turret, you see) as it is a self propelled gun.

The Warhammer 40K universe is ostensibly a science-fiction one, with all the trappings like spaceships and aliens and such, but it draws quite extensively on history, both as it was and as we imagine it to have been.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than the Imperial Guard, the hapless, dime-a-dozen garden variety humans trying to defend the Imperium of Man from foul Xenos and heretics. While the far superior Space Marines, who have all the best elements of Dune's Sardaukar and Heinlein's Starship Troopers crossed with Iron Man, get all the glory in addition to all the best kit, the poor troopers of the Guard huddle in their flak jackets and slit trenches while armored vehicles that look almost a century old by today's standards rumble by.  With these simple tools, they are expected to secure humanity against bloodcrazed mobs of Orks,  Eldar grav-tanks and the chittering hordes of the Tyranids.  How can they possibly expected to do this?

1) There are lots of them, and
2) They can produce guns and tanks at an astonishing rate.

There are a number of different regiments of the Imperial Guard, and my advice to anyone starting the army and unsure of which one to choose is to look at your favourite war movie: 
Platoon/Guadalcanal Diary = Catachan Jungle Fighters 
Lawrence of Arabia = Tallarn Desert Warriors. 
Blackhawk Down = Cadian Shock Troopers
The Dirty Dozen = Schaeffer's Last Chancers
Stalingrad = Valhallan Ice Warriors
et cetera

To be honest, I am not that big a fan of the movie Stalingrad, but one of the models I have accumulated over the years is a missile tank that would look right at home trundling into Red Square on May Day in 1982, so I based my choice largely on that.  Plus it gives me the excuse to draw mock Cyrillic graffiti on my tank turrets and scenery.  There is nothing paricularly Russian about the vehicles themselves, but the foot-soldiers more than make up for it,with their greatcoats, slung blanket rolls, wedge caps and fur hats.

Anyone who has ever read a comic story featuring The Haunted Tank will no doubt recognize the inspiration of the Basilisk's main gun as the venerable German "88".  Originally designed as an antiaircraft gun, Rommel used these guns in an anti-tank capacity to destroy much of the British Eighth Army at range.  This later lead to the development of one of the most feared tanks of the Second World War, the Tiger, equipped with the same 88mm cannon.  (Sadly, there is no real 40K analogue to the Tiger, but the Vanquisher comes close, and it is on the to-do list.)

The Basilisk is not really a fighting vehicle per se, however, but is rather a self-propelled howitzer, designed to bombard the enemy from a good distance away (in game terms, up to 20 feet, which is a bit of overkill since most tables are less than 9 feet long) with its 'Earthshaker' cannon.

It is a very fun kit to build, not least because of all the doo-dads and accessories you can add to personalize your model, like tow cables, bedrolls, jerry cans, and backpacks and the like.  You can also raise and lower the cannon, and a tiny geared wheel on the starboard side of the gun obliging copies the movement in miniature.

I had also squirreled away a pair of metal crew before leaving Games Workshop, as well as a resin breech kit which together enabled me to depict the Earthshaker in the midst of being loaded.

This was only my second attempt ever at a camouflage pattern in this scale, and my first attempt at a winter scheme, but I am pretty happy with it.  The nice thing about a sci-fi background is that you can dream up an environment suitable to the most garish colour scheme you can come up with!  I have also taken a swing at some weathering effects, like a little dirt on the treads and lower hull, unlike my Space Marine vehicles which look like they drove to the battlefield direct from the showroom floor.

I hope to get better at lettering and also need to come up with some unit designations, but a Cyrillic letter and 3-digit signifier are as good a start as any.  Since vehicle personnel almost always name the track they crew, I have named the Basilisk Temerity (with a backwards 'R' for flavour).  It will probably be a while before I have enough other forces painted to field it, but hey, that's one down and four to go! 

Oh, and about 6 dozen infantry as well...