Sunday, December 25, 2011

Yuletide Felicitations

We had an idea for our Christmas photo this year that didn't pan out, so we did this instead; it clearly falls somewhere in the no-man's land between sincere and ironic, which, in many ways, sums us up pretty well...

Given the sudden onset of holiday insanity syndrome, I shouldn't be surprised that I nearly forgot to make an update this week.  At any rate, Christmas Day seemed an opportune time to show the extreme to which my lovely wife takes her Christmas decorating.

This brief video was shot after the stockings and gifts were all opened, so it is a bit more chaotic looking than usual, but even this short tour of the living room reveals two or three of our five Christmas trees, most of the holiday candles and assorted other decorations.

I should explain that this is not a complaint, I just find it amusing and ironic that my wife can josh me about my nerdly obsessions while demonstrating such devotion to holiday accoutrements; I have sometimes referred to her spiritual denomination as "Christmastian".

It's been a lovely Christmas so far; my sister, her boyfriend and his son joined us for Christmas Eve and our church's pageant.  After church we exchanged gifts and played a rousing game of "Scabs & Guts", a 'meducational' trivia game.  This morning we opened our stockings, and our guests headed out for the rest of their visits.

My sister-in-law and her three children arrived shortly after that, and once everyone had a latte in their had, we exchanged another set of gifts.  My favourite came from my nephew Mark; if you are only going to have one beer before dinner, this is clearly the way to go. 

And Fenya made my cool new Batman pyjama pants in her sewing classes; how cool is that?

Hoping you are all enjoying a festive holiday and merriest of Christmases!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dinner & A Show

Watching the girls grow up and become more independent is bittersweet to be sure, but one of the fortuitous ancillary benefits is no longer needing to find a babysitter, allowing Audrey and I to step out and splurge for a change.

After getting the girls' dinner sorted out we went to Lazia for our own evening victuals.  An excessively modern Asian fusion restaurant with imaginative food and a comprehensive cocktail menu, even though I opted for their house lager, Drunken Master, brewed for them by Big Rock.  Audrey had a creamy macadamia nut concoction served in a martini glass that was delightful, and then another, as we were attending a movie afterwards just across the parking lot, so there was no need to drive anywhere anytime soon.

We shared an order of kung pao chicken hand rolls, served with crispy noodles and lettuce leaves to bind them up.  This is by no means a practical means of attaining sustenance, but it was messy, fun, and altogether tasty, with the cool, crisp lettuce providing a nice counterpoint to the spicy chicken and cashews.

For dinner, Audrey had the catch of the day, cod served with mesquite grilled prawns.  Seeing the wisdom in her seafood inclination, I ordered a seafood rice bowl teeming with mussels, prawns, and whitefish, served with a mild coconut curry.  The service was excellent, and the food arrived so quickly, we even stayed for dessert to kill a little time, which had not been our intention.

After dinner we meandered to theater and enjoyed a game of air hockey and dinosaur safari in the amusement parlour and then took our seats for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

As with most sequels attempting to build a franchise, the primary rule appears to be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and that aphorism is clearly in play here.  There is very little new here, and in some ways it feels as though the original bromantic comedy has simply been extended by a few extra reels.

Not that there is anything wrong with that!  Robert Downey Jr. plays yet another reflection of himself as Sherlock Holmes; a tortured genius who just might be too smart for his own good.  Jude Law remains dapper, jaded, and if not unflappable, certainly flap-resistant as his companion and partner, Dr. Watson.

The welcome newcomer is Jared Harris as the diabolical Prof. James Moriarty, Holmes' nemesis, and possibly the archetype for a thousand pulp and comic book villains in the century that followed his original literary incarnation.  Harris plays Moriarty with sufficient charm but without ever losing the ineffable sense of menace that such a character should exude.

The period references are again very well done, and movie serves admirably as a time machine to Victorian Europe, and the international strategic posturing familiar to students of history and those who play the game Diplomacy.  Sticklers for historical accuracy however, should be forewarned that they could very easily have called this film Steampunk Holmes.  All the hallmarks are here: anachronistic weapons, pernicious automata, gilded lethality, and, yes, brass, and goggles.

Not that there is anything wrong with that!  It has never been the intention of director Guy Ritchie to faithfully recreate the period , setting, or even the plots of the original Sherlock Holmes writings, but to capture the flavour and essence of them, and repackage them in a way palatable to audiences grown jaded with mere fantasy, but inoffensive to fans of the original works.  It is a difficult balancing act and there will be many who say he has failed, but I think Guy Ritchie has pulled it off once again.  His action set pieces are balletic and mesmerizing, and more than his camera work and use of slow-motion, it is his sonic artistry that continues to impress me, using all manner of sound effects and audio cues layered over rapid cuts to simultaneously mislead and provide insight to the viewer, often in a time-delayed fashion.

Simply put, if you enjoyed the first one, it is probably worth a trip out to see it on the big screen, and more importantly, on a good sound system  Audrey and I saw it in one of Cineplex's AudioAVX theatres, which provides a generally excellent viewing experience, in addition to reserved seating (for an expected premium in price, obviously).

All in all, a wonderful evening, and a very suitable way to spend our 19th anniversary.  When we were married, having a number of the wedding party still in school meant scheduling our wedding after the end of exams, and perilously close to Christmas, which has since resulted in more than one year where we have had no choice but to honour only the smallest of observances, and to take a rain check on proper festivities that did not always come to pass.

Spending time in a restaurant far more trendy than we are, sipping drinks and sharing reminiscences as well as forkfuls of food from each others' plates, and then curled up together in a theatre watching a hip incarnation of a classic detective story that has at least as much to do with affection as it does with deduction, was not only a welcome departure from many previous years, but it might have actually been ideal.

Happy anniversary Audrey; here's to 1.9 decades of honeymooning!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

This Christian Will Miss Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens passed away this week after a battle with esophageal cancer.  A gifted essayist and prominent atheist, it might seem odd that some of us had a discussion after church this morning as to whether he should have been mentioned in the 'prayers of the people', where we ask for grace and peace for those in need, including the friends and families of the recently departed.

I opened the discussion by saying that a couple of obituaries had included some variation on the idea that the writer would ask that Christopher Hitchens rest in peace, but that a) he didn't believe in any sort of afterlife, b) given his predilection to effectively argue unpopular positions, he probably wouldn't like to rest in peace anyhow.  Do you undermine the man's opposition to organized religion by asking for peace and grace for his loved ones at a time of grief, or do you compromise your own professed values by not doing so?  Do you risk alienating attending the service those who felt Hitchens was unnecessarily provocative and combative?  Later on I asked our minster, James, if it would have been appropriate to mention Hitchens' passing, and he certainly thought so, but hadn't considered it while putting the prayer together.  Others have struggled with the best way to recognize his passing, and none have expressed it so eloquently as fake newspaper The Onion with their headline, "Fumbling, Inarticulate Obituary Writer Somehow Losing Debate to Christopher Hitchens."

For my two cents worth, I was grateful to Christopher Hitchens for forcing people like myself to examine their faith critically, and from the perspective of an insightful outsider.  In his book God is Not Great, he suggests that Christians in particular have nothing to support their beliefs but faith itself, and calls on them to be brave enough to admit it.  Despite being diametrically opposed on the question of spiritual faith, we both shared an opposition to superstition, persecution and intolerance.  Even when I disagreed with his viewpoint, there was no denying the articulation and conviction of his arguments.

More important to me than his potentially ironic standing as an atheist icon was his dedication to the values my faith group tries to share, such as truth, and justice, and most importantly his fearlessness in doing so. He walked in lock step with the Bush administration's actions in the Middle East following 9/11, including the invasion of Iraq, and debated that act with British M.P. George Galloway, asserting his position despite the boos from the audience.  Despite supporting the invasion, he allowed himself to be waterboarded, dismissing that same administration's assertions that this was an 'enhanced interrogation technique' in a Vanity Fair article famously entitled, "Believe Me, It's Torture".

There are people of faith who believe Hitchens is perhaps now surprised to find himself experiencing the afterlife he did not believe in.  Perhaps he is, but this 'eternal reward' is not the pole I build my tent of belief around.  The only assertion I can make is that the world we live in can use more articulate, passionate and rational people who are dedicated to that most elusive of goals, the truth, regardless of their beliefs.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Good Coverage: Where is My Mind

There are those that oppose them, but I have always appreciated sincere cover versions of songs I like.  Sometimes it is a real testimonial to the strength of the song itself that it can survive or even thrive being interpreted by another artist, often in another genre.

Sometimes this homage can be playful, like Finnish metal band Turisas covering Boney M's "Rasputin", sometimes it can add soul to an already good song, such as Earth, Wind & Fire performing "Got to Get You Into My Life" (my favourite Beatles cover). Sometimes they are whimsical and yet still respectful, like Paul Anka's brilliant cover collection, Rock Swings.  I'm certain the slow, piano-based cover of Tears for Fears "Mad World" by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews helped sell a few copies of Gears of War, too, thanks to its use in that commercial.

One of my favourite Pixies songs (and not a cover) is "Where is My Mind", which is the musical backdrop for a milk commercial currently playing on television, and can also be heard playing at the very end of David Fincher's awesome film Fight Club.

Cleaning up in the kitchen this morning, I had an urge to hear the tune, but the only Pixies album I had on my iPad was Doolittle.  No worries, I thought, I'll play it on YouTube instead.

The song finished before my chores did, so I dried my hands and prepared to make another selection.  One of the suggestions on the YouTube page was a piano cover of "Where is my Mind", by French composer and musician Maxence Cyrin.  The video is set to scenes from the Greta Garbo film The Mysterious Lady, and suits it wonderfully, especially at this slower tempo.

It turns out Monsieur Cyrin's most recent album, Novo Piano, has covers of Daft Punk, MGMT and Nirvana, in addition to this Pixies cover, so I am hoping to find this album at some point.  The video for The Arcade Fire's "No Cars Go" is also a great little short film in its own right.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Felt Something: The Muppets

We went to our first family movie outing tonight since X-Men: First Class in the summer, and saw The Muppets. Like they were for a lot of people, the Muppets were a key part of my childhood, both on Sesame Street and in their own television variety show, and it has saddened me over the years to see them losing ground to other pop-cultural and entertainment entities.

I can't tell you much about Jason Segel except I see him in ads for How I Met Your Mother, which I know is enjoyed by a lot of people I respect, but apparently he is a huge fan of the Muppets, and was a big reason for this movie getting made, and actually helped write the screenplay.  Based on this alone, I am now a fan of his.

If you have ever enjoyed the Muppets, you need to go see this movie, and quickly.  I'm afraid there is not a lot more I can tell you, because for something so familiar it is almost trite, there are a couple of great little surprises in this film.  Don't let anyone spoil a single gag or cameo for you, even though there are plenty.

I missed Frank Oz a great deal, especially in Fozzie's voice, but I can't agree with his feeling that the characters were not being treated with respect in the screenplay, and that the humour came from broad, cheap laughs.  Well, okay, that second part is kind of hard to disagree with, but it's always been that way, hasn't it?  This first Muppet movie in over twelve years (!) has really captured the feel for me of the classic, corny Muppets I grew up with, plus a lot of my newer favourites, like Bobo the Bear and Pepe, the King Prawn.

Best of all, the filmmakers (and through them,the Muppets themselves) are completely self-aware that they are out of step with current tastes, that this kind of simple whimsy really has no place in the cynical entertainment marketplace of this second decade of the 21st century.  And that is all the more reason to see it, and see it soon.

That's not to say it's perfect; it's a bit uneven in places, but for anyone who is a fan of the television show, you are not just used to this, you've actually come to expect it, right?

I really don't want to chance spoiling anything for you, but since I want this post to be more than just "See it; trust me!", here are my

 Top 10 Reasons to See The Muppets in Theatres ASAP

10. Amy Archer is wonderful, and should get more work.
9. Rockin' 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
8. Singing and dancing, just like the old show.
7. Most of the cameos are quite good.
6. Hearing 'The Rainbow Connection'.
5.Some of the cameos are actually great.
4.Jason Segel has put together a great story about the world's biggest Muppet fan, and it isn't him.
3. One of the cameos is indisputably brilliant.
2. Chris Cooper is the best villain without a maniacal laugh ever.
and the number 1 reason you should see The Muppets in theatres ASAP
1.  It is just absolutely, one hundred percent #%&ing delightful.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Following Thanks, A Season of Giving

I know a couple of people who recently wrapped up some fundraising for prostate cancer in support of Movember.

I've seen a few boxes getting filled for Santa's Anonymous, which is an awesome charity. I've loved Santa's Anonymous since I was a kid hearing "And a Creature Was Stirring" on 630 CHED for the first time. (Seriously, if you haven't heard it, or just miss it, take four and a half minutes and listen to it here.)

At work, we have teams competing to see who can gather the most toys for the kids at the Stollery Children's Hospital, and that's going ridiculously well.

Everyone at my church was given some white kitchen garbage bags and a list of needed items about two weeks ago, and today, on what is called White Gift Sunday, we all brought our bags to the front of the church.

There is nothing fancy in them,and very little in the way of toys, but there are new socks, winter caps, underwear and mittens; razors, deodorant, toothpaste and feminine hygiene products. All these bags and everything in them (as well as some cash from the people whose faces this morning practically screamed, "Oh crap, that's today?") will be brought to the Mustard Seed Church and Bissell Centre in downtown Edmonton.

It's not the kind of stuff that's going to turn anyone's life around, but in the midst of winter, it has the potential to make a lot of lives just a little more bearable.

The older I get, the more Christmas turns from getting to giving for me. At first this was centered on the lovely lady who (astonishingly) chose to share my life, and then it gravitated to our offspring.

As they grow older, I've come to realize that one of the most important things I can give them is a model of what giving looks Iike and who it benefits. And not just the obligatory tithing we all do when a hat gets passed; the thing I appreciate the most about White Gift Sunday is that both girls have some money they set aside for charity, and they get to choose some items that will have a positive impact on someone else's life. The fact that this can be something as simple as toothpaste tells me that as a society, we are still short of getting our balancing act right.

For everyone who gives, no matter what or how or when, you have my thanks. Please take a moment to let others know that you are giving, so that they can get the idea and maybe give a little too.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, December 2, 2011

Heroes: Less Filling or Great Tasting?

I've never really come down off the fence in terms of Marvel versus DC.  Batman and Superman have always held more appeal for me as individual heroes, but I still have mad respect for Spider-Man and Daredevil.  Thanks largely to the excellent animated series, the Justice League will probably always be my favourite super-team, but choosing between the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans of DC and Chris Claremont's run on X-Men would probably be a photo finish.

The difference between the two universes is both subtle and distinct, but I don't think it is easy to articulate.  Both universes run the gamut from street level to cosmic storylines, often in the same book, but I think cartoonist Scott Kurtz once expressed the difference as DC being about tying a towel around your neck and pretending you're Superman, while a Thor fan is more likely to pontificate about the mysteries of the universe.  For myself, I don't know if I can define what makes these two comic book settings unique, but vive la difference!

One area I think Marvel has demonstrated its clear superiority in is in transferring their universe to the big screen.  While DC's animated offerings (Bruce Timm's Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League) have set new standards of brilliance in doing this on television, Marvel has really outdone them at the movies.  Yes, Richard Donner's Superman has a lot going for it, especially the casting of Christopher Reeve, and Christopher Nolan's take on Batman has been undeniably awesome, but no one in their right mind will try to put these interpretations on the same screen, while Marvel Studios has very intentionally crafted a crafty linkages that not only acknowledge Captain America, Thor, Hulk and Iron Man live in the same universe, but will soon star in the first big-budget super-team movie, The Avengers:

Needless to say, I'm pretty excited about this prospect, and watching Captain America: The First Avenger tonight hasn't done anything to dampen my enthusiasm.

Director Joe Johnson showed himself to be a deft hand with period superheroics years ago with Disney's adaptation of Dave Steven's wonderful comic The Rocketeer.  I made a joyful little squee-noise when I heard he'd gotten tapped to direct Captain America, because this is a character which is very easy to get wrong.  Feel free to watch the 1990 attempt if you don't believe me.

I seriously don't think there is a missed note in this movie.  They move very quickly from revenge (never once mentioning Pearl Harbor) to establishing the Nazi super-science division, Hydra, and its leader, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) as the villains of the piece.  When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), inventor of the super-soldier serum that will eventually give the Captain his powers, asks scrawny, 4-F Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) if he wants to kill Nazis, Steve responds, "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from. "

Costumes are often the most difficult element of these adaptations, and although there was some initial concern on the the internet (like there always is), I think they got it spot on here.  Captain America's costume is a brilliant mix of comic book idealism and battlefield practicality, evoking flying aces and paratroopers as much as Jack Kirby's iconic design.

Like Spider-Man did back in the day, Captain America establishes strong motivations for its principle characters, heroes and villains alike.  For the Red Skull, its about the application of power and world domination; for his research stooge Arnim Zola, it's about the application of undiscovered science; for Steve Rogers, it's the moral principle of doing what's right, especially when it isn't easy.  The story brings these characters and the plot around to a very satisfying climax, and while it doesn't pose any really tough questions for the viewer the way a film like The Dark Knight might, it still takes care to show the price of principle.  My worries about Joss Whedon (writer/director of The Avengers) adding his touches to the script in order to make sure Cap is the same fellow in both movies appear to have been needless.

While no one goes to a superhero movie for the acting, everyone aquits themselves admirably.  Chris Evans does an equally awesome job as scrawny Steve Rogers and brawny Captain America.  Pride of show has to go to Tommy Lee Jones, who, like so many great actors, really appears to be playing himself as the gruff colonel in charge of the super-soldier project.

And although screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have done a marvelous job of making this film accessible to those with no comics background, it is laden with nods to the larger Marvel universe beyond even what we will see in next year's Avengers.  It would have been terribly easy to use yet another generically evil Nazi labcoat as the Red Skull's right hand man, but having eventual super-villain Arnim Zola in the picture was a great touch. Adding Howard Stark (Tony 'Iron Man' Stark's dad) to the origin added even more structure to this shared universe, and didn't feel at all contrived. Seeing Dum-Dum Dugan was great, but casting Neal McDonough from Band of Brothers to play him made it even better, and knowing that his British comrade James Montgomery Falsworth is also the costumed hero known as Union Jack is just icing on the cake.

There's even some nice nods for film buffs, my favourite coming near the beginning when the Red Skull approaches his mythical prize, the Cosmic Cube: "Let the Fuhrer dig in the desert for his trinkets..."

Best of all, the movie is completely bereft of the rah-rah jingoism that the character of Captain America was practically designed for when he was first created back in the '40s.  The movie and the title character proceed with a balance of power and humility which they never seem to lose, and which epitomizes our southern neighbours when they are at their best.

As much as I am looking forward to the next Chris Nolan Batman movie, I am also surprisingly glad to hear DC/Warner will be looking to reboot Bruce Wayne's alter ego for the movies shortly afterwards.  First of all, who would want to follow that act without a significant re-shuffling of the deck?  More importantly, could this give DC the opportunity to create a cohesive movie universe that could have their seminal characters interacting and even perhaps (gasp) teaming up?

If it does (and I certainly hope this is the case!), I really hope they are sitting up and taking notes at films like Captain America.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Airways, Railways and Highways

The four of us watched "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" tonight; first time for the girls, latest of many for Audrey and myself, though I haven't seen it in years. Set during American Thanksgiving, the timing was spot on, so I'd requested it from the library earlier in the week.

It's still a darned solid comedy, especially for something nearly a quarter-century old (ugh). I'd stayed home with a blinding headache today that 600mg of ibuprofen could only dull, but thirty minutes of John Candy and Steve Martin banished it nearly completely. I wasn't sure how a nine and twelve year old would like it, but both Fenya and Glory laughed almost continuously and found the ending a little moving, which is as it should be.

I feel like PT&A should have at least a slightly higher rating in iMDB than its 7.5 out of 10, but that's me speaking as a fan and not necessarily critically. Most of the laughs are pretty broad and include topics like body odor, testicle injury and homophobia, but anyone who doesn't laugh at the "those aren't pillows!" scene the first time they see it is running a fairly serious risk of being wound too tight.

That being said, I remember trying to watch the film with my father years ago, but he found it unbearable because it was too similar to business or training trips that he had actually taken in his life.

Watching the movie this time, it occurred to me that I probably have more in common with John Candy's Del Griffiths than Steve Martin's Neal Page. I'm a heavy chatterbox more inclined to diners than bistros, and more likely to wear hats with earflaps than a snappy fedora. A first I found this a little upsetting; you naturally want to identify with Neal as the protagonist, who is smart, smooth, successful, and has a lovely family to boot.  But when Neal has his first set-to in the motel room with Del, the response is sincere, humble, and borders on the eloquent:

Del: You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I'm an easy target. Yeah, you're right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you... but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I'm not changing. I like... I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. 'Cause I'm the real article. What you see is what you get.

I'm certainly not going to try to paint John Candy's boorish shower curtain ring salesman as some sort of role model, but upon reflection, there's worse fictional characters to share some attributes with.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's Not the Water

Six children were baptized in my church today. This always has the potential for chaos, but James did his usual wonderful job of keeping things low key, up tempo and on track, and the children were largely cooperative.

I have terribly conflicted feelings about this particular sacrament. On the one hand, as a member of a faith community I believe there is a lot of merit in formally, ceremonially bringing them into that community. Whether that community is the local parish or congregation, or the national or worldwide denominational church, or even something as comprehensive as Christianity, I think there is an undeniable power and affect behind a public declaration of faith or a statement of belief.

But I know that isn't what brings every parent in to baptize their child. There are some who do it to appease their family, others who do it out of a sense of tradition. To me, this feels a bit disingenuous, but I don't think it precludes a positive experience or invalidates the solemnity of the occasion.

What does upset me is wondering how many people are there because of a belief in magic.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the blessings in my life that I am most grateful for are my friends who happen to be atheists. Neither of us are terribly interested in proselytizing anyone, but I appreciate their perspective and how it helps me to view my faith with a critical eye, and I hope they get something out of my ramblings and anecdotes about my attempts to live with some degree of organized religiosity.

Critical thinking means seeing the Bible as a divinely inspired work in spite of contradictions and often overlooked historical context and translation issues; a source of ancient wisdom and moral guidance, not a combination rulebook, instruction manual, scientific text, and set of comprehensive templates for aiding in the judgement of others. I believe in prayer as a means of reestablishing my connection with the infinite, not as a means of petitioning a supernatural being to intervene on my behalf.

I watch baptisms in my church knowing full well that there is a distinct possibility of never seeing that family in there again. They've scratched that supernatural itch, and are comfortable moving back to their normal environs. I find this regrettable for a number of reasons; on a strictly personal level I intensely dislike other people wiping their superstition all over my spirituality, but I don't get to make that call. I think something really special can happen in the course of baptism, but it has little or nothing to do with the special properties of magical water; after all, it's a church, not a homeopathy clinic.

More tragic to me is the sense of lost opportunity. As society grows more and more insular, real community seems to be getting hard to find, especially a community so well equipped to help people at the most trying times in their lives, like birth, marriage, and even death (or as is sometimes said, 'hatch, match and dispatch').

Still, it could be worse. I'm gratified when anyone shows an interest in sharing my faith and it's trappings, even if it's just a transitory experience. Who knows, that parent, or godparent, or uncle, or friend might hear or see something that makes them think about things from a different perspective. Maybe they'll come back, or visit another church, or explore some entirely different faith expression. Maybe they will come to understand, as I've begun to, that we are all capable of blessing one another, and that a church is just a really good place to be reminded of it. These blessings make our lives better despite not making us more resistant to disease, making us immune to bad luck, or even giving us a +2 on our saving throws.

And this is also why atheists should not feel awkward saying "bless you" when someone sneezes.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Back to Bass-ics

This may be old news to many, but a recent poll by New Music Express has pronounced Muse's "Hysteria" as having the best bassline of all time.  I'm a big fan of Muse, and having developed many a hand cramp from trying to keep up with this bassline in RockBand2, I find no reason to disagree with this finding.

Like all such lists, this one is incredibly subjective and designed to evoke passionate discussion, if not outright bloodshed.  I found it highly interesting that Canadian prog-rockers Rush took silver with "YYZ", another entry which I find personally agreeable.

1. Muse – 'Hysteria'
2. Rush – 'YYZ'
3. Queen – 'Another One Bites The Dust'
4. Queen and David Bowie – 'Under Pressure'
5. Pink Floyd – 'Money'
6. Metallica – 'Orion'
7. Michael Jackson – 'Billie Jean'
8. Yes – 'Roundabout'
9. The Who – 'My Generation'
10. Tool – 'Schism'

Likewise for the two entries by Queen, although I probably would have reversed the order myself.  Depending where you draw your borders, it's a very decent turnout for progressive rock, with 4 of the top 5 sewn up, and another one or two besides.

But what defines "best" in this context though?  Is it the speed or the difficulty, or something harder to define, like catchiness or funk?  Is it resonance, or the length of time the riff takes to leave your head?  Is it standing the test of time, like "My Generation", or abandoning conventionality like "Schism"?

Any list that makes me crave headphones has done its job, and this one has certainly done that.

Monday, November 14, 2011

First Snow of the Year

Edmonton has never seen a winter where it didn't snow in either September or October...until this year. We got a little dusting on Saturday morning, but nothing to worry about. Tonight we got our first solid flurries, and of course they turned the streets into chaotic miasma of inertia which quickly divided most of the population of Edmonton into two camps: reckless death-wish jackholes and plodding overcautious obstacular types.

Trying to find a middle way like an erstwhile Itto , I got home without major incident, although I did glide though one corner on a largely ballistic basis. The radio, meanwhile, was telling listeners that the downtown was gridlocked, and city buses were struggling to get up some of the hills, and not always succeeding either.

I was still feeling the effects of having spent the majority of Saturday laying facedown on the floor, installing a dishwasher. In fact, my new boss asked how my weekend was, and I said "biblical". When pressed, I explained how in the story of the Garden of Eden, Satan always gets blamed for tempting Eve with the fruit, but it was actually the serpent, and God punished him, by making him 'crawl on his belly and eat dust'.

"And?" he queried.

"And that's how I spent most of Saturday; crawling on my belly installing an appliance, and eating three decade old dust from underneath the old one. Now I know why snakes bite so many people: they're cranky."

After supper though, I knew the sidewalks would have to be cleared, lest they partially thaw then re-freeze and turn the area in front of my house into a litigious deathtrap. I reluctantly dug my snowboard boots out of the basement (no, I don't snowboard; they were on sale and hella warm) and prepared to head outside. It was only a little below freezing, but the wind was brisk, so a hat with ear coverage was mandated. As I zipped up my jacket, Fenya happened by and asked where I was going. When I told her, she immediately asked if she could help, which made me both happy and proud; happy for the company, and proud that she and her sister are generally so eager to help.

One of our neighbors had already done half of the sidewalk in front, so in very little time, the two of us had finished the front and side sidewalks as well as the driveway. I withdrew to the house for some hot chocolate, and Fenya donned her snow pants so she could join Glory and her friend Brynn playing outside. I'm glad she is still able to enjoy simple play like that, even if she mightn't have gone without some sisterly cajoling.

As I sipped my hot chocolate and wrote this post, I was routinely interrupted by squeals and screams of unmitigated delight from the yard. What is it about snow, especially fresh snow, that appeals so much to the child in us? Tomorrow we will have to rise a little earlier so we can leave a little earlier and still arrive on time, but our household has already gotten a toehold on enjoying this season which makes up so much of the Edmonton year.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Long Weekend

I've been serving in an acting manager role at work since June, which has been a real mixed bag. On the one hand, it was quite a compliment, but it was not a position I was entirely comfortable with, despite my previous leadership experience. Still, the place didn't catch fire before the new manager showed up last Monday, and another team lead the week before, so I am chalking it up as a victory; a tiring, taxing and occasionally terrifying victory. Sometime in the next week or two I should be able to start working within my new Quality Coach role, which should play much more to my strengths.

Whatever hopes I had for this weekend being one of reflection and recuperation went right out the window, however. My sister, her beau, his son and the four of us went to Ainsworth Dyer Bridge in Rundle Park to help place the crosses for Remembrance Day; one for every Canadian killed in Afghanistan, ending with Byron Greff, who lost his life in a suicide bombing just a week or so back. It is a very casual, yet respectful ceremony, that brings out a fantastic cross-section of Edmonton: the young and old, men and women, military and civilian. This was our second year attending, and although I would like to attend the services at city hall or the University of Alberta Butterdome, I am sure it will not be our last.

After lunch, it was time to try installing the dishwasher we had bought earlier that week. The three-decade old Kitchenaid that came with the house finally packed it in, and after a month of hand washing, we finally came across an Inglis on sale at Canadian Tire. I'm terrified of projects involving wiring or plumbing, but my frugality has been sufficient to overcome my trepidation in the past, and the thought of paying $200 for what an experienced person could probably do in an hour bolstered my chutzpah enough that I was (mostly) willing to make an attempt.

The first setback came when I realized a significant part of the plumbing attachment was not actually included, and raced off to Rona to procure it. Only later did I discover that where the water supply in the installation diagram ran parallel to the floor, mine came straight up out of it, meaning the elbow I had just purchased had 90 degrees too many. I dashed back to Rona, arriving ten minutes prior to closing, but the helpful lady who'd assisted me beforehand had gone home, and the lad looking after the area was adrift even before they turned off the lights in the aisle at five minutes to six.

After returning home and explaining to my remarkably understanding family why they couldn't use the taps or flush the toilet until the following day, I finished what work I could and returned to Rona early the next morning. And then did that two more times in fairly rapid succession, wondering if I should let the girl at the return counter know I wasn't actually stalking her.

After sorting out a shutoff valve so the rest of the household could resume using water, I was very nearly completed when I broke off the shunt connecting the new drain hose to our ancient garburetor. This had happened once before, and I had been able to patch it up using PVC cement I had actually bought for model building (score one for the hobby nerd!), but alas, I had no more of that product, and the Tamiya extra-thin plastic cement just wasn't up to the task.

Visiting Rona and then attempting to find an open plumbing supply store proved to be fruitless and time consuming, and even Home Depot had none of the brush-on cement I was looking for. They did, however, have a PVC reducer I was able to carve to fit and clamp into place for a total cost of $1.89; it's nowhere near watertight if the garbage disposal should hold up the water drainage, but it should serve as a stand in until I am able to find a more proper replacement.

Audrey and the girls were out visiting as I prepared to finish hooking up the dishwasher and rolling it into place, envisioning how happy she would be to see it done when she returned, and how glad my daughters would be at not having to wash the supper dishes by hand any longer. Anxiety over the install had compromised my sleep the night before, and with a little luck, I could perhaps squeeze in a nap before Audrey and Fenya came back.

Unfortunately, this took quite a bit longer than anticipated, as the new dishwasher has quite a bit less space underneath than the old one, which meant that after all the hookups were made, I then had to unhook them three times in order to make sure there was clearance over my newly installed shutoff valve. It also took me an inordinate and embarrassing length of time to figure out how to use the wiring connectors.

By 5:00, with plumbing reopened and power restored, nothing flooded or caught fire so I ran a light load through the new dishwasher. While it worked it's way through the various cycles, the growing smugness I felt within faded away as I glanced around the kitchen and the assortment of tools strewn across the counter, floor and table. In the living room, the box and packing material awaited recycling, so I sighed and got down to the actual final stage.

Glory was sleeping over at a friend's, but when Fenya and Audrey returned at around seven, they agreed with my assertion that the money we'd saved on having someone else install the dishwasher was certainly sufficient to merit their taking us to the new Fatburger franchise near our house for dinner. A enormous and tasty burger, some onion rings and a $3 pint of Whistler lager, had a tremendously positive effect on my disposition. My knees and back were a mess, and I was completely knackered, but had accomplished enough that I felt confident I could coast for the remainder of the weekend without getting called on it.

Upon returning home though, more chores loomed; we had already scheduled the following day as when we would put up our Christmas lights, and as brisk as it promised to be, it would only get snowier and colder from here on in. We thus got caught up on our Glee viewing while we removed and replaced the bulbs from about forty feet of icicle lights.

After church the following day, we realized that the late arrival of our first snowfall meant that we could not count on the snow going away so we could rake up the leaves. While Audrey and Fenya ran errands, I got several piles of damp leaves gathered up, and cleared the front eavestroughs of pine cones. When everyone was home again, we all ventured outside so the girls could bag the leaves and get the canine droppings off the ground before they too were covered by snow until their inevitable and gruesome resurgence in the spring, while Audrey and I got the lights hung.

At long last, it appears that everything we needed to get done is out of the way. Sipping a Goldschlager mocha as I write this, I recognize what a privilege these chores actually represent, as the 'burdens' of home ownership and fatherhood.

Returning to work tomorrow will be a lot easier knowing there are others there now to help bear the yoke of leadership, and I am taking a couple of days off prior to helping out at a job fair next weekend. Even this pleasant sort of tired can make a work week feel longer than it actually is!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, November 7, 2011

Big Hairy Deal

Glory had her first feis of the year this past Sunday, which saw three of us head out to the Marriott Hotel at River Cree while Fenya joined some of our friends (and 1500 other people!) at the Edmonton Down Syndrome Society Buddy Walk.

She is taking her dance a little more seriously this year, and putting more time in to practicing.  A lack of suitable floor space within our domicile has seen her practicing with her hard shoes out in the garage, which is none too warm. It was cold enough that I could see my breath as I was out starting the barbecue for supper a week or so back, and peeked in the garage window to see how she was doing.

She was prancing about in good form, an expression of totally focused concentration on her face, her cheeks flushed from her exertions.   She certainly didn't notice me grinning in the window, even though she passed close enough for me to see her lips moving as she silently counted ONE twothree, ONE twothree, and worked her way through her various jigs and reels.

I entered the garage as she was finishing up.  "Good work," I told her, "I can see you're working hard."

"Thanks," she puffed.  "I forgot my CD player in the house, but I still went through all the steps."

"You did all that from memory, with no music?"


We turned off the garage lights and headed back towards the house.  "That's very dedicated of you, Glory.  You make Mum and I proud when you do that."  That got me a big grin,and I asked her,  "Do you know what it reminds me of?"

"What?" she asked.

"When you were just starting out, and having a little trouble with the basic steps, we would push all the furniture out of the way in the basement, put The Best of the Chieftains on the stereo,and you'd hold my hand while we skipped around in a big circle, couting ONE twothree, ONE twothree until you were comfortable with the steps."

Glory was incredulous.  "Really?"

"Hell, yes!" I responded indignantly.  "How can you not remember that?  D'you think it's easy for a man my size to skip for that length of time?  To say nothing about how silly-feeling it left me! I can't believe you don't remember it."

"Maybe a little..." she hedged.

"Pfft," I said.  "It's a good thing you don't need that help now..." Truth be told, I can barely follow her feet now, let alone discern the steps.

Before opening the door to the house, she stopped from a step up to give me a big hug.  "Thank you for practicing with me Daddy, even if I don't remember."

And just like that, everything was fine again.

Glory's been fascinated by Irish dance ever since seeing it at Heritage Days when she was three years old.  For weeks and months afterwards she talkd about the dancers with the bouncy hair, and she hadn't stopped two years later when we finally got her started in lessons.  We learned that the bouncy hair was almost always a wig, and the springy curls were designed to accentuate the height of the jumps, and to make it appear they were leaping even higher than they actually were.

We got Glory a small bun-style wig for her first feis a couple of years back, but this summer, Nanny gave her some money for Irish dancing 'stuff', so she got her first proper bouncy hair wig.

While it's hard to be conclusive about what sort of affect such an accoutrement might have, Glory ended up getting 5 medals in 7 dances, including two gold, one of which was in her very first hard-shoe competition.
Glory only won one medal in her last feis, so she was thrilled to have gotten five this time around, and with two gold to boot.

Before we left, I told her how proud I was , but not because of the medals she won, which confused her a bit.  "What are you proud of then?" she asked.

"How hard you worked and how much effort you put into practicing for this feis.  And I know you will keep doing it and do even better next time, right?"

Even her nod made her hair bounce.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


I'm pretty disappointed that I didn't dress up for Halloween this year; I haven't been to a Halloween party in years, but I usually like to throw on a costume for either handing out candy or joining the girls on their trick or treating rounds.  This year, with the exception of an amusing walrus-shaped hat ("I'm John Lennon," I told one curious parent.), I was an observer and not a participant.

Thankfully my girls are picking up the slack for me.  Fenya actually arranged two costumes this year; the first was a '50s girl outfit for the school day and the afternoon dance (!) that was planned:

With the mercury hovering around the freezing mark Monday evening as anticipated, she opted for something more practical for trick or treating, which was a 'crazy cat lady' costume she made with the assistance of the instructor from her sewing class.  Angela also helped Carissa with her Queen of Cards and Paper Bag Princess (from the Robert Munsch story) outfits.  The pirate was all Glory.

Glory got to wear two different costumes as well, since her class got asked to participate in a zombie-themed movie addressing homelessness.  I gather it was pretty easy to get her fellow 4th graders to help out after the director told them a key part of the movie would involve running and screaming down the school halls.  And that there would be pizza.

They were asked to wear costumes they wouldn't mind getting soiled or torn to Friday night's filming, since most of them would be getting zombiefied on day two.  A quick trip to Value Village and Glory was kitted out in a largely disposable bride costume.
It was a tiring but interesting experience for her over all, she and Fenya are both movie fans, and have shown unexpected patience and interest when I want to watch the "Making Of" features or listen to commentary tracks on DVDs, although there is an appreciable spike in desire that appears to relate directly to the proximity of impending bedtimes.  Getting to see what goes on behind the cameras, even on a small production like this has given her a greater appreciation for how much work is needed to put even a short film together.

Unfortunately, fake blood was divvied up on a 'first come, first served' sort of basis, and because she is reluctant to push her way into a lineup, there was no time for her to get any claret into her bridal whites.  She was pretty upset when I asked her about this at home, but at least they still did an estimable job with her undead pallor, I have to say:
She was also not quite as prepared as she could have been for just how much repetition is required.  The hour or so I got to watch revolved around the hallway shown in the clip above, and every scene ended with the director asking them to go back ten feet and do it again...then five feet... then back to the doors and let's go once more...and after we switch out these lenses, we'll do juuust one more, and so on.  To his credit, the director's energy never lagged and he was extremely patient with a group of tired kids, who I have to say were all real troopers as well.

As for the rest of our Halloween festivities, it was a little different.  As usual, we put on The Nightmare Before Christmas so we could listen to it as we carved the pumpkin (Boingo forever, yo), but for the first time ever, the girls did the bulk of the carving on our Jack O'Lantern.  All I did was cut the lid open and trace on the design Fenya drew, and they gutted, carved and poked out the rest of the details.

This was also the first year with canine participation, with both Carissa's Shiba Inu named Miyagi and our Nitti dressing up as Superman.  Normally I find pet costumes objectionable, because despite some of their less charming qualities, I do believe dogs have dignity, of a sort anyways, and because so many of the overdone dog get-ups I've seen seem to feature some miserable looking animals in them.  These outfits were fairly straightforward, and not that different from the coat we have for Nitti to wear in cold weather, so, you know, what the heck.
If I didn't know any better, I would swear these two hounds were enjoying themselves.

Fortified with mugs of hot buttered rum, Carissa's dad and I escorted Carissa and Fenya on their rounds, while Glory went trick or treating with her friend in St. Albert.  They petered out a little more quickly than I expected, and overall, there was a pretty small presence for costumed children in our neighbourhood.

This seems like a shame to me, as more and more people do their trick or treating in malls and community centres.  I've always seen Halloween as a fascinating social contract, wherein people trade candy for an opportunity to see children from their neighbourhood dressed in cute or scary costumes.  More and more people seem to be decorating their homes and yards for the event, but in spite of this, fewer and fewer kids seem to go door to door every year, and I wonder if my eventual grandkids will even get the opportunity?

Well, there's not a lot we can do about society, but at least I know some kids who will have fond memories of this once macabre holiday that I am sure they will want to share with the next generation.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Grown-Up Night: Nola

I expected to spend tonight at Victoria School, believing I needed to stay on site while Glory participated in a project I will undoubtedly blog about later.  When it turned out this wasn't the case, and with Fenya joining the church youth group at Fort Edmonton's Spooktacular, the rare spectacle of a childless evening suddenly hove into view.

I wasted no time, and called Audrey to ask her where she wanted to have dinner.  By the time I arrived home, she'd narrowed it down to "not pasta", which was liberating but not particularly helpful.  I recalled seeing Scott McKeen mentioning that the chef at a new creole place in our neck of the woods had 'Cajun cred', and pretty soon we were driving down to Nola, Creole Kitchen and Music House on 118th avenue at 124th street.

Nola is not a very large place, which is part of its charm.  Dark tables and napkins complemented by wooden chairs in funky colours, and a generally understated decor the rightfully keeps the focus on the small stage.  We got there just about 6:00, just in time for local singer-songwriter Martin Kerr to start his set.  

I am always prepared to take live dinner music with a fairly substantive grain of salt, but listening to him warm up and do his sound check with The Beatles "Blackbird", I began to pay more attention to his clear and evocative voice and the nimble confidence with which he played his six-string.  He began with Jack Johnson and rolled into a couple more covers before unleashing his own material, which I have to say is quite good, and we ended up buying both of the CDs he'd brought.  I found myself wondering what would bring such a talented fellow to Edmonton from the U.K. via China and Virginia, and he told a charming story of how he'd met a girl from Edmonton while living in China, and how she contacted him in Virginia and told him "I've been thinking about who I'm going to marry, and I think you're my best prospect."  She showed up in Virginia unannounced, but it wasn't until he came to visit her here in Edmonton that he realized she was right, and has lived here now for 6 years, and was a top 16 finisher on Canadian Idol a while back.

While I enjoyed his original compositions like "Fireflies" (about the Virginia visit) and "Undiscovered Geniuses" (which you can hear on his website) the most, the sound quality is better in this YouTube duet covering one of the saddest songs ever, Tracy Chapman's "Fast Cars".

We weren't altogether hungry so we ordered from the Lousiana-styled tapas menu, and enjoyed seafood hush puppies, coconut shrimp,  dry Cajun wings and grilled Andouille sausage served with small slices of garlic baguette and with a brilliant mustard.  For dessert we shared a delicious and savoury-sweet bread pudding which left us sated but not stuffed.

I also appreciate that they keep beer from local breweries like Yellowhead on tap, and greatly enjoyed the Zombie Apocalypse red lager from one of my favourites, Amber's Brewing.  Some of Nola's signature cocktails, like the Cajun Caesar and Louisiana Lemonade, are available by the pitcher, and I could see this being a wonderful place to spend an entire evening with friends.

Alas, we had things to do before picking up the girls, so we couldn't stay to hear all girl cover band The Red Hotz who were coming on at 9:30 and playing until close, so we left during Martin's break.  4 small tapas plates, a dessert and a pint set us back less than $60, even with tax and tip, and the service was prompt and pleasant (and almost uncomfortably young!), so I hope we get an opportunity to return before long.  A number of different restaurants and clubs have tried to make a go of it at that corner, the most recent being Rusty Reed's House of Blues, and it's a tough business.  If you get a chance, please drop in to Nola, and maybe help support some local and travelling artists as well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mug Shot

Games Workshop used to publish a semi-pro 'fanzine' called Citadel Journal. Where White Dwarf was polished and mainstream, CJ was a bit rougher around the edges and hairier around the eyeballs, but pretty fun for all that. Content and quality could vary greatly from issue to issue though, which made it difficult to sell subscriptions.

One Christmas season, they came up with a very popular promotion: every subscription came with a limited edition "Polymorphine Mug".

In the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Imperial Assassins use the shape-changing drug Polymorphine in order to infiltrate the ranks of the enemy (i.e. everyone not human and many who are). In game terms, this used to mean replacing an enemy model with your dread Callidus Assassin, who would then run all manner of roughshod over your opponent's back lines.

The rules aren't nearly as generous now, but the mug is just as kitschy and fun as ever. It was highly coveted at the time, and I wonder how many are still intact; I've had mine for almost 15 years now, a reward for beating our subscription target when I ran Canadian Mail Order for GW. At some point the Polymorphine effect will stop working, or I'll accidentally break it, so when I made hot chocolate for Glory and I after supper, I thought I would capture the effect for posterity.

Hot drinks are one of my favorite parts of this season, and enjoying some vintage nerdery at the same time makes it all the better!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, October 23, 2011

How Little I Did

Upon awakening this morning I discovered I was having trouble swallowing and I could feel every corner of my sinuses. Clearly, I had failed my last saving throw versus cold, and whether the initiator was someone from work or my own family was immaterial.

After a quick shower, I felt a little more sapient, and decided I would be better off joining the family at church than returning to bed, although this decision was only reached after a hung jury and third party arbitration. Church was enjoyable, but afterwards we needed to sort out lunch and dinner.

I try to do the cooking on the weekend since Audrey takes care of almost all meals during the week, which meant two things: simplicity and comfort food. Thankfully the groceries I had picked up only the day before accommodated this remarkably well.

I made a pot of potato soup with sausage and cheese for lunch, and it was delicious. Unfortunately I made the mistake of looking at the nutrition label and discovering it was not only awash in sodium, but also contained trans-fats, so we shan't be having that brand again. Sigh.

After the dishes were cleared away, I shredded up some cheese, boiled some noodles and sauced up some macaroni and cheese in the crock pot. After adding an appropriate number of mozzarella-filled cocktail smokies (don't judge me, I'm sick; I told you, comfort food) I was free to spend the rest of the afternoon reading vintage comics on the iPad.

Which I did.

Revisiting the medium of my childhood, ads and all, was a great way to spend a crisp afternoon indoors nursing a cold. Remembering how I waited at the Smoke Shop on 50th street in Leduc for the latest issue of Rom: Spaceknight, or Daredevil, or the Teen Titans. Even the familiarity of the ads was a treat.

Having an opportunity to check out the kung fu and horror comics of the seventies that had intimidated me as a child was very interesting. I had no idea that Chris Claremont, longtime X-Men writer, also wrote quite a few stories about martial arts superhero Iron Fist, many of them drawn by Canadian legend John Byrne.

The macaroni and cheese turned out pretty well too, but its best feature was that once it was in the crock pot, the best thing I could do was escape into a four-colour nostalgia cocoon until it was done.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tools of the (DM) Trade

It occurs to me that I have been lax in posting nerdly content for a while, so I will see those of you with no appreciation for such things in a week or so.  Having gotten together for one of our irregular but not too infrequent Dungeons & Dragons sessions last night, it seemed an opportune time to discuss some of the various tools and doo-dads we use to keep things moving and organized.

The 4th edition D&D rules continue to be a divisive force within the fantasy RPG community, but that doesn't bother me since I wasn't a member of the community when this schism occurred.  I like how straightforward the 4e rules play, and appreciate the various elements that have been borrowed from the card game, board game and video game worlds.

Where there used to be a lot more room to 'fudge' things in terms of what monsters were caught within a spell's area of effect, and who could see whom, and how long before a wounded character either died or regained consciousness, the new rules pretty much require a map and either counters or miniatures to insure the tactical situation is relatively clear.  Since I still have most of the old Grenadier miniatures and such from when I began playing at age 13, this requirement suits me just fine, and the fact that I picked up an awful lot of figures during my 11 years with Games Workshop means I am pretty well kitted out in this regard.

As a result of this, it's been ages since I have had to use my pencil case full of multi-coloured army men to represent the party's opponents, but back in the day, that worked just fine.  ("The green ones are orcs, the grey on is the chieftain, and the two tan ones are bugbears."  "I'll take the bug bear throwing the grenade, the wizard can get the one with the rifle...")  The bulk of my current foes are drawn from the old Warhammer Quest game produced by GW.  If you can find one of these on eBay or at a garage sale, I highly recommend picking it up: over a hundred figures, including a dozen giant rats, bats and spiders that can proxy in for a dizzying array of different dungeon denizens, plus orcs, goblins and skaven (rat men) to round out the medium sized opponents.

There's even three minotaurs to cover the larger, ogre sized creatures, and I painted one up to represent a Bronze Warder from the Thunderspire Labyrinth module.  Citadel Colour hasn't made Jade Green in ages, so I had to schmear a few colours together in order to get something approximating verdigris.

We have a few sets of the Wizards of the Coast Dungeon Tiles, which are gorgeous, but more often we use a large vinyl Chessex mat with a 1" grid printed on it (with 1" hexes on the reverse side).  This gives us a bit more flexibility for encounters that take place in oddly shaped rooms (which the aforementioned Labyrinth has in quantity), and also lets us use coloured markers to show things like fireplaces, pools, and so on.  We have been using Lumocolor non-permanent markers for this, but they are fairly fine tipped which can make it difficult to discern precisely where the walls are.
I happened to be near a Staples today and discovered that there are not too many alternatives to these 1mm markers in the business section, but there are all manner of washable markers in the school supplies area, which meant I got bigger markers and twice as many of them for the same price.

Another handy item is an assortment of pipe cleaners to show the borders of spell effects, especially those that can be re-directed or which follow a character around.
D&D Miniatures have made a few non-monster models, and I have a handful of scenery bitz which make good props such as these treasure chests, one from D&D Miniatures and the other from the GW Mordheim sprue.

My favourite though, has to be this Flaming Sphere (which I found on eBay), and I think you will agree it is a much more flavourful way of depicting this spell's effect than a penny, coloured die or a cardboard marker.
Speaking of spell effects, I had bought this assortment of modeling clay so that those opponents who had been cursed, marked or challenged could easily be identified by putting a pinch of the appropriate colour on the base of the initiating model as well as their target.
This worked well enough until Gale Force 9 started making licensed token sets to specific character classes, like the Paladin set shown here.
This makes it very easy to see which opponent has been Divinely Challenged, whether or not the Paladin is the one carrying the party torch or not, and even a clear silhouette to show when they are invisible or  concealed.

There is also a Dungeon Master's set we've been using to show which characters or monsters have been slowed, dazed, bloodied or subjected to ongoing damage.
It is as clear as any other means, and clearer than some, but the tokens have their own issues as well, such as remembering whose is whose, and insuring that the appropriate tokens follow moving models around the grid.  Last night, someone was even heard to observe "Hey, does dragging those 4 tokens around cost him any speed?".

Previously we had used a small white board to record both initiative order and ongoing effects such as these.
I wrote the names of the PCs onto pieces of foamcore and attached pieces of magnetic tape to the back so that there are 4-6 less names I have to write down every encounter and to make it easier to move things around when a latecomer joins the fight or if the order changes for some reason.

Recently we have been using the Initiative Tracker app by Lvl 99 Games for my iPad instead.  It's a bit fancier, not quite as flexible in terms of what it can do compared to a whiteboard, but it does actually move characters from the bottom to the top as they take their actions, which makes it easier to keep track of where you're at in the order even when resolving multiple opportunity attacks and the like.  You can colour code each combatant, and there are a variety of icons you can turn on or off to signify bloodied, stunned, etc.  And it's free, which is nice, but means we are unlikely to see too many upgrades for it.

Despite the fact that the party is nearing 6th level and none of them have died yet (despite a number of close calls), I can't say enough good things about the dying rules in 4e: once you go to zero hit points, your model is laid down, and on every successive turn, you make a saving throw versus death.  On a twenty-sided roll of 10+ you pass, but a 9 or lower means you fail, and your third fail means it's time for you to roll up a new adventurer or for the party to cough up an expensive Raise Dead ritual.  This brings a lot of drama to the table, which is much appreciated, at least by this Dungeon Master.

It becomes critical to depict a couple of things on the tabletop as a result of this, the first being how many death saves have been failed, and for this I use an assortment of tombstone figures I have acquired over the years.  We've also put big black X's on the whiteboard (three strikes and you're out!), but gravemarkers seem so much more evocative, don't you think?

The other is to differentiate between those models representing a character in mortal peril as opposed to those who have been knocked down, taken cover or are having a nap.  I initially used this vintage "Minor Death" figure (Death is scalable?  Seems like an absolute to me, but maybe it's like Miracle Max says in The Princess Bride: "Turns out your friend here is only mostly dead..."), and stood him at the head of those who had fallen to zero hp:
Jim Reaper, Repossessions Dept.
But I don't find him nearly as cheeky or as intimidating as Vinnie the Vulture here, who I procured from a pack of Reaper Miniatures  familiars:
Carrion my good fellow, carry on...

The last couple of tools I use are actually outside the proper rules.  I have a small pouch of flat glass stones that I hand out to individual players for various reasons: good role-playing, a hearty battle cry, a devastating pun, or the timely roll of a natural 20 which might turn the tide for our beleaguered heroes, like last night when not one but two dying players rolled 20s, which brought them to their feet and back into the fight.

Once a player has collected 10 of these stones, they can trade them in for a tiny d20.  This small dice can be used to re-roll any single roll, or it can also be used in the place of an action point.  Best of all, they are transferable, and selfless players have given them to another character in order to get a second chance at a desired result.
The best one I gave out was for the player who successfully avoided the potentially devastating effects of a spell cast by an evil dwarf magician called a Theurge.  The other players were already happy when Mike told me the attack had missed, and positively cheered when he crowed, "That's right: I resist the-urge!"

That kind of behaviour simply must be encouraged, and 1/10 of a re-roll is a small price to pay.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Spring in One's Step

Yesterday afternoon, I was about as happy as I have been all year.

Part of my enjoyment was what I was doing: floating on my back in a pool of 40 degree mineral water, my hands behind my head, about ten deep breaths away from entering an alpha state and slipping into full-on unconsciousness,and wondering if I would continue to float if I did so.

A bigger part of my happiness was where I was: surrounded by the Rocky Mountains and nestled into the hot spring pool at Miette, tucked between Ashlar Ridge and Fiddle Valley, possibly my favorite spot in Jasper National Park.

The biggest contributor to my mental state was neither where I was nor what I was doing, but who I was with: my family. Our recent vacation in Ontario was a great time, but so packed full of visits and activities that it all went by in a blur.

Early in September I realized I still craved more time with my wife and daughters, so I booked us a campsite for the Thanksgiving long weekend, since my parents were expected to head out to BC for winter well ahead of that. (They didn't, but that's what expectations are for, right?) I figured it would be cool, but was not expecting it to drop six degrees below freezing while we shivered in our tent.

We cheated by bringing along a space heater, but the additional condensation caused by this surplus of warm air resulted in a drippy tent, complete with patches of ice when the morning came. Still, what's the point of going to a hot spring when it's warm outside?

It was great just wandering around Jasper, riding the tram and hiking about halfway to the summit of Whistler Mountain (the snow made for a tiring ascent and a treacherous and terrifying descent; I do not regret for an instant our decision to abort our climb!), and playing Blokus in the tent on my iPad. We ended up seeing mountain sheep crossing a pond, lots of Elk (including a magnificent bull who refused to lift his head up for a decent picture), some deer, and Glory spotted a coyote right in our campground as we drove for firewood that we followed in the car for almost hundred feet. We enjoyed smokies cooked over an open fire, and bacon and eggs cooked on a camp stove, and a dinner at North Face Pizza.

The best part has to be enjoying the park with curious children who just happen to be yours: How long have people been here in Jasper? What makes the hot springs so hot? How come ravens can make so many noises? Why is that guy getting so close to that elk when the parks lady told us to stay three bus lengths away? Can we please turn the heater back on? Why can't we live in Jasper?

All in all, our weekend in Jasper helped remind us how much we have to thankful for, including warm beds that don't rest on the ground, but especially each other.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Benatar Effect

Welcome to Punditry in Motion; I'm your host, Mike Arrears-Dunn.  My guest today is random blogger and unnoted political commentator Stephen Fitzpatrick.  

Thanks Mike, good to be here.

Alison Redford's dramatic come-from-behind victory at last night's Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race has stunned an awful lot of people; would this include yourself?

Oh, definitely, but perhaps not as much as some other people.

And why is that?

Well, it probably stems from the role that media, public apathy and group psychology play in our democratic institutions.  Take political polls for example, which I have a certain amount of antipathy for.It seems that a great deal of what is referred to as 'momentum' and the like is generated by these polls, and people begin treating them as de facto results.  In a province like Alberta, where only 36% of those eligible to vote actually bothered to leave their homes last time around to mark some X's on a piece of paper, the very last thing we need is less incentive to come out and participate because we feel the result is a foregone conclusion.  Almost no one gave either Alison Redford or third place finisher Doug Horner a credible chance of defeating Gary Mar in this run-off vote. His lead was repeatedly described as 'practically insurmountable'.  I firmly believe that these kinds of upsets actually restores people's faith in the democratic process, and I am not just saying that as a guy who minored in psychology at a small college more than two decades ago and hasn't touched a textbook or an abstract since.

That may be so, but others are saying that this tradition of bumping off the front-runner almost every single time points to a selection process that may be fundamentally broken.

Our entire process for electing provincial officials should be so broken!  I appreciate not having to wait another two weeks to find out who the party faithful have selected to lead Alberta's government, and there is no better way to do that than the preferential ballot.  In fact, Graham Thomson of the Journal wrote a great piece describing how the Tory leader selection process is actually more democratic than our regular elections.

Be that as it may, how do you explain this stunning comeback by Premier-Designate Redford?

Well, I think that a number of factors came together to produce a textbook example of the Benatar Effect.

I beg your pardon?

E-mail, the web and now social media have given us whole new ways to argue about a variety of subjective topics, like music, for example.  But back in the pre-internet days, our primary means of proving which song was 'the best' was through radio call in shows.  The producers would take a number of classic songs, say, 64, and randomly assign them as opponents to each other on a bracket system very similar to what they use in college basketball's Final Four championship.  Each song is played in turn and listeners are asked to call in and vote for whichever one they consider to be the best.  The loser is eliminated, and the winner goes on the next round to face an opponent that also won its bracket.  This continues until the two most popular songs face each other, and an overall winner emerges from that terrible conflagration.

I see...and what role does Pat Benatar play in all this?

At the time when these sorts of competitions were popular, Benatar was a very successful artist, and rightfully so, but was not typically seen as having the same sort of gravitas as more established or influential artists like The Rolling Stones or The Beatles.  But what would sometimes transpire is that after knocking off another contemporary colleague, she might find herself facing off against a more legendary opponent like Led Zeppelin, fresh from from the rock battlefields where they managed to edge out "You Really got Me Goin'" by the Kinks.

On the face of it, "Stairway to Heaven" shouldn't have much to fear from "We Belong", but you may have a situation where a number of people call in less to support Pat Benatar and more to vote against Led Zeppelin because perhaps they dislike time signature changes in their Album Oriented Rock hits, or don't believe a rock classic should have so much flute in it.  Maybe they are young males who mistakenly expressed attraction to Robert Plant before seeing the concert footage from "The Song Remains the Same" and realized he is indisputably male; perhaps they are just vengeful Kinks fans.  Whatever the reason, there is a swell of support for Pat Benatar.

Meanwhile, many of the people who voted for Led Zeppelin in the previous round think it is a foregone conclusion that Pat Benatar is in over her head on this one and that Zeppelin will take it in a walk, and don't bother to phone in.  The end result is that suddenly Pat Benatar is moving on to the next round,while Led Zeppelin finds themselves clambering out of a pile of flaming bus wreckage in the ditch, eliminated in the second round by the woman who sang "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."  In a nutshell, that's the Benatar Effect.

And you think this is what happened to Gary Mar?

I think the combination of low turnout combined with the complete and utter shock of the Mar team as the results came in sort of bears the theory out, don't you?

True, there were much fewer votes placed in this contest compared to the one that brought Ed Stelmach to power...

Sure, another case where an established front-runner lost out to a dark horse...

But as you yourself have observed, Gary Mar was an established, well connected centrist candidate with a very well-funded and well organized campaign.  Isn't it natural for the tiny sliver of Alberta's population that actually voted in this leadership race to be attracted to him?

Absolutely, but that same attraction galvanized a number of people opposed to 'business-as-usual' politics, including numerous teachers and nurses tired of the endless cycle of job cuts followed by the exodus to other provinces, to being short staffed and beginning to (finally) hire them back.  The $5 cost of a Tory membership is a small price to pay for, say, a teacher, compared to the $100 million Redford said she would return to the Education budget.  With the current government cutting school budgets left and right while  simultaneously building new schools, it's easy to make people crave change.

Marr on the other hand, took a right kicking in the last debate at the boots of Redford and Horner, who repeatedly grilled him on the hefty MLA severance package he took when he headed down to Washington.  Sure it was all legal and above board, except where he clearly created an expectation he wouldn't take the money, and then did, but later, which apparently makes it okay.

Who were you hoping for last night as the votes were being tabulated, certified, re-tallied and audited into the wee hours?

Honestly, it was a win-win for me; I was either going to get a savvy, compassionate and smart woman premier with no big debts to the establishment and a clear desire to shake things up, or I was going to get another smooth talking fat cat who is a charter of the very old boys club that was desperate to keep Alison Redford on the sidelines.  With an election coming next year, competition on the right from the Wild Rose Party and a charismatic new leader for the provincial Liberals, that promised for an exciting election in its own right!

Oh, and the additional bonus of watching hubris being publicly punished is pretty tasty as well.

Were you pulling for Redford from the start?

No, I was actually hoping for Ted Morton initially.

That seems like an unusual choice for you.

It totally is, but my thinking was that getting a slash-happy fiscal hawk who is also such a religious social conservative that he counts as an honorary Republican south of the 49th parallel would have been just the kick in the tuchus that the two-thirds of this province who didn't vote needed to get them off their couch and into the polling stations.  I wouldn't be surprised to find similarly inclined Democrats secretly funding Sarah Palin's 'will she or won't she?' campaign in the U.S.  It's like The West Wing crossed with Twin Peaks!

But you are happy seeing Alison Redford step into the Premier's seat?

Sure, she seems like a very good choice as far as our single party system can take us, but I'm no less confused as to what happens next.

And why is that?

With a small-l liberal now in charge of the Progressive Conservatives and a former big-C conservative now running the Alberta Liberals, it really is getting hard to tell the players without a program.

Well, that's all the time we have today.  I would like to thank Stephen Fitzpatrick of Confessions of a Middle-Aged Adolescent for being with us today; please join us next week on Punditry in Motion when we ask Doug Horner, "Dude, what happened?"  I'm Mike Arrears-Dunn, wishing you a pleasant evening.