Friday, January 28, 2011


Today marks the 25th anniversary of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle mission.  I remember watching the Enterprise take its test flight off the back of a modified 747 nine years earlier while visiting my aunt in Kitimat, an event momentous enough to merit interrupting normal broadcast service to carry live coverage of it.  By 1986, the two dozen previous shuttle launches meant they were barely news any more, and certainly not an event, until the explosion occurred, killing everyone on board.
STS-51-L was the official name given to this mission, and the mission patch above features a prominent comet, as part of the mission was to deploy an orbital observatory for the coming of Comet Halley.  Smaller but almost more eye-catching due to its colour and placement is the apple next to the name "McAuliffe".

Christa McAuliffe was a schoolteacher from New Hampshire who was one of 11,000 applicants who vied to become the first teacher in space.  The fact that the first civilian in space was to be a woman as well as an educator painted a vivid picture of the peaceful, inclusive and knowledge-driven future that those of us who grew up watching Star Trek on television yearned for.

Even in death, her dream of being the first teacher in space was never realized; the shuttle exploded less than two minutes after launch, at a height of 48,000 feet.  To this day, the footage of the children in her classroom watching as tragedy unfolded before their eyes, their proud, gleeful shrieks replaced first by stunned silence, and then sobbing, is still my benchmark for heartbreak.  Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup, became the first teacher in space, but not until 21 years had passed.

After the explosion, the shuttle program was grounded for almost three years while a commission discovered that an O-ring made by Morton Thiokol was the most likely cause of the explosion.  In 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, again killing everyone on board and although many initially speculated on terrorists being responsible, it appears a damaged hull tile was probably the real reason.

These two accidents have had a profound effect on the American space program; NASA's glory days are long past, and they have to fight for every funding dollar they receive.  They have made admirable efforts to engage public interest by sharing feeds for the Mars Rover directly to the internet and the like, but there are probably more people concerned about Jersey Shore going to Italy than NASA trying to get to Mars.

Some of their efforts seem to smack of desperation, like the recent press conference called to announce a stunning discovery in the field of exo-biology, which turned out to be not nearly as dramatic as anticipated, but has also had its scientific credibility called into question.  I've never believed in the axiom 'there is no such thing as bad publicity', and I hope NASA doesn't either, but as an ever more introverted and cocooning society turns more and more inward in its interests, it may become hard to argue against them.

On the other hand, the super-rich are still funding the Russian space program in exchange for rocket rides, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic stands to be an early leader in space tourism at $200,000 a ticket, and hopes to begin their sub-orbital flights in the next year or two.  Meanwhile, Chinese taikonauts are being lauded as heroic explorers like American astronauts once were, before we apparently forgot that space is intrinsically dangerous.

There was a time when the deep ocean was a dangerous unknown, and before that, the sea with a barely visible shore, and prior to that, the land across the mountains, and before that, the area outside our cave.  I hope humans never lose their desire to explore these unknowns, and that more of us return to space, and soon.  And not just billionaires and those who do it for national pride, but engineers and chemists and teachers, and eventually accountants and miners and cooks.  I hope they go to see just what is out there, and to serve a need or to find something useful, or to help support those who are going further and further out.

25 years after STS-51-L, let us not focus on the tears, loss and horror of its aftermath, but on what drove brave individuals like Christa McAuliffe to go into space in the first place.  Let's continue to look outward, and see what's out there, and continue to go, boldly, where no one has gone before.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Noms

So, the nominations for this years Academy Awards were released today.  I haven't seen nearly as many of these pictures as I would have liked; I especially regret not seeing True Grit or the Social Network in theatres, but there may still be time for the first one.

Still, not having seen most of these films shouldn't preclude my weighing in with a few opinions; after all, this is the internet!

Hardest Choice: Best Animated Feature
The superlative and stunningly animated How to Train Your Dragon, or what may be the best threequel ever, Toy Story 3?  I don't think Pixar has ever lost this one, but if there was ever a year they might, Dreamworks has given them a very credible opponent. Also, there is a possibility of vote migration, as Toy Story 3 is also up for regular ol' Best Picture, only the third animated film ever to do so.

No spaceships, aliens, or time travel in Chris Nolan's brilliant Inception, but it is the closest thing to a genre champion this year, and 8 nominations are nothing to sneeze at.  It would be my favourite for Best Picture if they hadn't snubbed Nolan for Best Director!

Score Snub
Tron: Legacy wasn't a great film, but it had first-rate production design, and an absolutely top notch score by techno duo Daft Punk; I can't believe they didn't get a nod.

I mean, how cool would it have been to see Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails frontman and Oscar nominee for The Social Network) go head to head with two guys never photographed without their helmets? Ah well, now I will just have to pin my hopes on Hans Zimmer's awesome score for Inception.

Nolan's Inception script might be a little convoluted to get the nod from Academy, and there are those who felt it lacked emotional heft (these people are fools), so if I had to pick Original Screenplay for the Oscar Pool today, I would probably go with The King's Speech, based solely on buzz. And I am not sure what The Social Network or Toy Story 3 were 'adapted' from, but for Adapted Screenplay, my sentimentality and respect for the Coen Brothers love of language draws me to True Grit. Read the novel by Charles Fortis if you get the chance.

Plan of Attack
All right, of the ten Best Picture nominees, I have only seen Inception and Toy Story 3.  I can rent The Social Network, but I might as well buy it because Aaron Sorkin is one of my all-time favourite writers and director David Fincher is no slouch either.  If I rush, I can catch True Grit and The Kings' Speech in theatres, and if I can figure out some way of seeing Black Swan, that gives me the inside track on, lessee here...48 nominations!

Guess I had better get started, huh?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Making Tracks: Leman Russ Executioner

So, this is it: the sixth and final armoured vehicle planned for my Valhallan 40K army.  I wish the swan song was a bit more dramatic, but I think I used up all my customization mojo on Cold Comfort earlier in the month.

Despite the game's setting of the 41st millennium, the vehicles I have built so far look pretty similar to tanks of the Second World War, with some present day accessories and sci-fi trimmings (like the hull-mounted lascannon on Snow Tiger), but the Executioner breaks that mold cleanly.  The main gun is the infamous Executioner plasma cannon, and the stowage boxes in the rear of the turret have been replaced with additional plasma coils in order to maintain a high rate of fire.  Space Marine power armour is no match for the fury of superheated plasma, and even Tactical Dreadnought (Terminator) armour can only withstand one shot in three.

Since the other two tanks had a crewman in the open hatch of the turret, I knew I wanted this one to be buttoned up.  I've read enough issues of G.I. Combat to know that if you don't keep that hatch secured, Sgt. Rock is going to climb up onto your track, riddle the commander with .45 slugs from his Thompson, and then drop a couple of 'hot pineapples' down into the tank for good measure.  Besides, the closed hatch makes the tank look a little sleeker.

I kept the tank itself relatively plain, with no sandbags, bedrolls, shovels and the like, because I wanted the centre of attention to be the big plasma cannon.  My reach outstretched my grasp a little, however; although I am fairly happy with the coils themselves, I had wanted to give them kind of a 'glow' effect.  Painting light sources is a pretty tricky business and I am strictly a journeyman painter, but the principle seemed easy enough.  I think it would have worked better against a darker background, but I was unwilling to repaint the entire gun barrel to facilitate this.  Even though the glow didn't turn out even close to what I pictured in my mind, it still gets the idea across, and so I left my efforts in place.  It also suits the name I decided to give the tank: Lux Cathedra (Light of the Throne).

If I was a bit gutsier, I would have tried to paint some sort of glowy starburst down inside the barrel, like the heart of the Doomsday Machine from Star Trek.

Now *that* is intimidating.
There may even be a tactical advantage in Lux Cathedra's stock appearance (which I will now lose by pointing it out): each piece in the Warhammer 40,000 game is worth a certain amount of points, which serve as the currency which keeps the games evenly matched.  A base-model Leman Russ starts at a modest 150 points, and then you pay extras for accessories like weapons sponsons, extra armour and so on.  If you've ever purchased a car from a dealership, you are already familiar with this principle.  Lux Cathedra, with its lascannon in the hull and plasma cannons in the side sponsons, weighs in at about 260 points.  (It would have been 275 but I decided I didn't need the undercoating.  What the heck do I care about the resale value of a tank which stands a significant chance of becoming a burned-out hulk by the third turn for heaven's sake?)  This is not a complaint, as it will earn those points back the very first time it runs across a squad of Terminators in the open, but the bottom-liners in the Departmento Munitorum will be keeping a wary eye on the Executioners they commission, as will the enemy, so it bodes well to draw less attention to one, rather than more.

Still, the glowy green energy weapon in the turret makes it hard to be anonymous.

I did try to add a little distinctiveness by adding some patches of snow to the rear cargo box and sponsons.  I bought some snow flock for the horde of foot soldiers I will be painting next, and thought this made as good a time as any to experiment with it.  Again, it would have been more distinct against a darker background, and I definitely need more practice with it, but since I will be painting about a hundred man-sized models (if all goes well!), there will be plenty of opportunity to improve.

Six tracks in six months is hardly anything to brag about in the big scheme of things, but I met my deadline of having all the vehicles out of the way by February, and they all look pretty consistent.  Hopefully I can keep up the same pace on the infantry, and maintain the dream of playing with the army at least once before G&G VI in May!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Here's To Ye, Pale Horseman

Excuse me, are you...  Ha!  I thought so!  You only look a little like the pictures I've seen, but the hollow eyesockets were a dea- I mean, a giveaway.  Do you mind if I join you?  Cheers.

Well, this is a privilege!  There's a lot of folks who know lots of folks, but you are the only one who is going to meet everyone, right?  Boy, the stories I bet you could tell...  I imagine you have a heck of a non-disclosure agreement though, huh?  If Houdini can't even get enough of a furlough to float a feather, that has got to indicate some fairly stringent security measures.

Personally?  Well, I guess I'm just a little intrigued.  At the darkest parts of my life, there's probably even been a part of me that wondered what it would be like to get you know you, you know, on a personal level, but rushing the inevitable just feels a little foolish to me, so, there it is.

But I guess even that inevitability isn't as sure a thing as it once was, eh?  You must see the same articles that I do; the ones where they talk about 'turning off the death gene' or whatever.  They are already predicting far greater lifespans just a generation or two down the road.  And that's before you even start looking at human cloning for either replacement parts, or even transfer of consciousness.  It's no longer completely irresponsible or crazy to suggest that dying of old age could be an outmoded notion by the next century.  And the strangest thing about it, is that talk like that pushes me into your corner!

Oh, that surprised you, did it?  It's kind of hard to tell, honestly, what with you not having any eyebrows or anything.  But it's true; I don't look at the post-mortality future with optimism.

How can you even ask why?  In the last century, we lined up most of your business for you, didn't we?  What was it, 40 million people in less than one decade right in the middle?  Forty million!  And we step back and say, 'whoa, hey, we can't let things get out of control like that again!' and others say 'Never again!', and I'm sure they mean well, but then the rest of us just sit back and let things slide in places like Kampuchea and Rwanda.  And for what? A little more turf, a little more gold for our portion of a century drawing breath?

What on Earth will we be capable of once we get it into our heads that we can have it forever?  Once you throw out that whole "you can't take it with you" mentality, man, I am pretty sure that everything else goes up for grabs.

It's so easy to rationalize, right?  I mean, there's already speculation as to how this planet is going to sustain all of us, and that's with every one of us popping our clogs after a while.  If some people are never going to vacate the premises, well, that's a problem.

I figure if they ever discover a cure for death or a fountain of youth or whatever, it is not going to be a case of first come first served.  And if cancer drugs can cost thousands of dollars a dose, I figure an immortality serum is going to go for whatever the market can bear.  And I don't remember the exact numbers, but with 2% of the people holding 50% of the world's wealth, it can probably bear a fair old amount.

And once those fat-cats know they are going to live forever as long as they can eat, brother, I think the gloves are really going to come off.  I mean, if the other 98% don't just overwhelm them first.  Either way, I kind of hope I don't live to see it.

There's a whole philosophical angle as well.  Even if benevolent aliens from Proxima Centauri showed up tomorrow and just added Mortalinox or whatever to our water supply so that everyone on the planet could halt the aging process at middle age, it's still a resource distribution nightmare, unless Mortalinox doubles as a contraceptive.

And even if it did, what then?  We have a closed system, a species incapable of reproduction, incapable of infusing itself with new blood and shuffling the deck.  Where do the bold new ideas come from?  There's this guy, a writer, named Andrew Vachss who says children are "another chance for our flawed species to get it right."  I know, right?  It's even cooler when you consider the guy has never had any kids himself.  But the point is, things change for the better when a fresh face encounters something and says "why is it that way?" and someone else says, "I dunno, that's how it's always been," and the first person figures "This sucks," and starts changing things.  Where is the incentive to change when you are going to live forever?  I mean, if you think we are a bunch of hide-bound sticks-in-the-mud now, wait until you see how good people are at playing it safe when they anticipate living forever!  It's a stagnant pond that-

Oh, hey, that's my flight they're calling.

Listen, I have to go, and I don't want to sound like a fanboy or anything, but as much as you've given me cause to hate and fear you, I've come to respect you.   You've always been even-handed; rich or poor, black or white, capitalist or communist, Jew, gentile or atheist, you've come for us all.  You're the great equalizer, one of those rare things every human has in common.  I mean, when something like SIDS comes along, sure, your poll numbers are going to take a hit; who doesn't like babies?  But on the other hand, there's this whole movement where people are saying they should be able to decide exactly when they are going to meet you, do it on their own terms as it were, so maybe there's more understanding out there than you think. 

All I know is, it's hard to imagine a world without you, and God willing, I won't have to experience it.

You take care, big guy.  I guess I'll be seeing you around.

Not too soon though, right?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Games People Play (Or Not)

I am both familiar and comfortable with the notion that most bloggers write for an 'audience of one'.  The main reason for my keeping a blog is because I like to write, but could never be bothered to keep a diary.  Also, because I thrive on pats-on-the-head, I am extremely gratified when someone tells me they enjoyed a particular post, or leaves a comment.  While I may sometimes address serious topics, Confessions of a Middle-Aged Adolescent is largely a long-winded justification of my refusal to adopt the norms of maturity, hence the high proportion of posts devoted to divertimentos like movies and games.

Games are a big part of my life, and I guess they always have been.  From games of tag and hide-and-go-seek of early childhood, through Go Fish, Operation and Monopoly, to party games like Balderdash or Cranium or pursuits like poker or chess with their infinite opportunities for competition, you can probably mark a lot of the milestones of your life with the games you played at the time. 

In addition to games like the ones above, starting in junior-high I also got involved with things like wargames played on boards featuring hexagonal spaces instead of the more familiar grids (courtesy of my friend Brent), and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.  Right around the time Audrey and I got married, Island Mike (who was still Edmonton Mike at the time) and I got into miniatures wargaming with Warhammer 40,000,  and while we both still play two decades later, I have added quite a few other ones as well.  In fact, I was even fortunate enough to spend 11 years working for Games Workshop, the British company that produces Warhammer 40K (as it's known) as well as the fantasy counterpart it derives from, Warhammer.

Having parted ways from the company in 2007 after a re-structuring, and having established myself now in what will hopefully be a fulfilling (if somewhat more mundane) career, I still couldn't really tell you if I should have left years before, or if I wished I could have stayed working with the company in a different capacity.  A number of changes have occurred since I lasted worked for GW, not all of them for the better, and they do not even have a Canadian office any more, so staying would have meant either more travel, or moving, neither of which have any appeal for me at this point in my life.  Still, I met and got to work with a number of truly excellent people from diverse backgrounds with similar interests, who were passionate about what they did, so I still count my time there as a privilege.

When GW first established a Canadian office in Mississauga and called me for an interview, I was pretty thrilled.  None of the jobs I'd had up to that point had any appeal as a career, so I had made a real effort to get one with even their American office in Baltimore, surveying retailers who carried their products and sending them a report with my thoughts and suggestions.  Being flown out to Ontario for a job interview was a very big deal to me, and I had no idea what to expect, but I was a little surprised when they outlined the day for me.

There were currently two managers sharing the responsibilities of running the Canadian operation.  They said they were both going to 'have a go at me' individually, and in between, I was going to play a game with some of the other staff.  They had a new game, Necromunda, and wanted to get my impressions of it.

It's possible there were other people there that I don't remember, but know Bill from Mail Order was there and so was Aaron, one of the warehouse supervisors.  It was my first time playing a skirmish type game, where the figures moved independently instead of as part of a unit, and the game came with a number of multi-level terrain features with catwalks spanning between them, so it was a real departure from what I was used to.  We all had a pretty good time, and I figured it was a good way to see if I actually played miniature games or just read the books, as well as seeing how quickly I could pick up on things like new rules.

About six months later Audrey and I had moved to Etobicoke, and I was adapting to life with the new company.  Pretty much everyone I worked with was excellent, but as in all work places, there were a couple of exceptions.  One evening, I saw one of the exceptions get called into Ed's office, along with Aaron.  A short while later, he left, red-faced and wordlessly, and it was obvious to the handful of us around that he had been sacked.  Ed came out and told us that this was, in fact, exactly what had happened, without going into the hows and whys of it, but then shocked me by saying it never would have come to this if they had simply played a game with him first.

"Seriously?" I gaped.

Ed nodded.  "You can tell a lot about people from the way they play games, even ones where no money's at stake.  Are they fair, are they sporting, are they greedy, all that sort of thing.  The first time we had a big staff game, that one," cocking his head to the door the sackee had left from, "made a complete arse out of himself."

"But that's not why you sacked him," I asserted nervously.

"Of course not!" Ed laughed.  "But everyone treated him differently after that, and it became obvious pretty quickly that these were not little quirks any gamer might have, or maybe an off night, but telltales about flaws in his character.  We're big on character here, so after that game, it was really only a matter of time."

"That makes sense," I agreed, and then I finally twigged.  "Wait, is that the reason you had me play with Bill and Aaron?"

Ed looked at me with a puzzled expression.  "Of course."

While I wouldn't want to judge a person solely on the manner in which they play a game ("So, you always play a thief in D&D?  Are you naturally inclined to deceit and backstabbery, or are you just greedy?"), I know that there are many people in the world who I get along with just fine that I would not want to play games with.  Some are morose, others too distracted, still others way to intense.  Some people are way too competitive, and others are just not competitive enough.  It can be very subjective, but games can often provide us these insights into what other people consider important.  It's also a great way to express what is important to you.

Now that I am a parent, games are an incredibly valuable tool for Audrey and I, and not just for developmental benefits like fine motor control or literacy or numeracy (although these are all good things), but also as a way of developing character.

Games are one of the best ways to learn about things like:
  • Taking care of things
  • Waiting your turn
  • Sharing
  • Thinking ahead
  • Being a good loser
  • Being a gracious winner
  • Not giving up
  • How to play fair
  • How to play to win
  • When winning isn't important
The adults I know who don't enjoy playing games have often had a bad experience with them, sometimes at the hands of a family member, often dealing with a mis-application of something from the list above. Even these folks can enjoy the right game in the right context, especially if you make it clear that your goal of having fun is not intrinsically linked to your winning the game.  (Although, let's admit it; it is awfully nice, eh?)

Sadly, these things get overlooked regularly in the school curricula, so it is up to parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and mentors and friends of the family to come to the kitchen table (or the basement or the rumpus room television) and show them how.  We'll all have some fun, and some of us alleged grownups might even learn something.

The best thing of all is when children model those lessons back to you.  After missing an easy dice roll in a game with the girls, I let out a dramatic "Arrgh!" and brought my fist down on the table in mock fury.  Glory reached for the dice with one hand while patting my shoulder with the other.  "It's okay, Daddy," she said in the serious tones that only an eight-year old can muster.  "After all, it's only a game."

Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Tracks: Leman Russ Tank

The latest addition to my Valhallan armoured element is a second Leman Russ tank.  Unlike the Vanquisher I built previously, this one uses the standard Russ battle cannon, so it is not limited to an anti-vehicle role.  In fact, since it has a hull-mounted heavy bolter and two more in side sponsons as well as a heavy stubber on the turret,  it's actually better suited to anti-personnel work, and should make an ideal 'objective clearing device'.  Since I wanted a proper Latinish Imperium name for the final tank, I wanted this one to be a bit more generic, and ended up calling it Cold Comfort as a reference to both its frozen homeworld and the cold steel of its armour.  (Cold Hard Truth was in the running right up until I painted the letter 'd' in cold, but it just felt too unwieldy.)

There are six different variants of the Leman Russ, and since my 22nd Valhallan Armoured regiment will have three of them by the time I'm finished, I wanted one of them to be the base model with a standard turret.  This vanilla Russ also makes a nice foundation for things like the two tank riders, the commander and a bulldozer blade.  The 'dozer blade makes it easier for the tank to move through difficult terrain like forests and such without becoming immobilized by throwing a track or some such.  The tank riders have no rules but I find them especially evocative, since there are historical examples of this from WWII Russia, and I think they bring a great deal of character to a stock model such as this one.

The Silly Putty masking technique is still working well for the initial camo, although shading the white portions does take a little bit of effort, and the consistency to the other vehicles may leave a little bit to be desired.  Still, I probably ended up spending more time on the three human figures than I did the rest of the tank. 

Some smaller accessories are meant as small telltales to the stoic preparedness of the Valhallans, such as the holstered pistol within reach of the tank commander, the packs and rucks affixed to it, and even the axe affixed to the front hull.  After all, 'Be Prepared' is the Boy Scout marching song, right comrade?

In addition to weathering, I wanted this tank to sport some battle damage.  The bullet holes under the driver's viewport were done by holding the tip of a nail in a candle flame with a pair of pliers and then pressing it into the plastic repeatedly. 

The larger shell craters were achieved in similar fashion, but used the heated head of the nail instead.  This gives a nice rippling affect like you might get from a HEAT round or plasma bolt that hit the armour at an oblique angle.

I do have to be careful in traversing the turret however; with the main gun at maximum elevation I can avoid knocking off the hunter/killer missile on the starboard sponson, but the turret rider will boot off the rider on the hull if it goes the other way!

This model took me longer to complete than I anticipated, but if I can finish off the last tank by the end of January, that will leave me February, March and April for the foot models and air support element.  I will need to stay focused if I want to have the army field-worthy in time for G&G VI, but if I can actually get a game in with the army before that, so much the better!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Greatest Gift?

After years to the contrary, I have finally reached a stage in my life where I have greater anticipation for how others respond to their gifts than in opening the ones I have received.  It's kind of liberating in a way, and it's made it far easier for me to be more appreciative of things like socks and underwear ("Hey, I wear these like, every day!  Now I don't have to buy them myself!"), whereas I once had to (cough) fabricate a certain degree of enthusiasm.

Even when I haven't given the gift in question, I enjoy watching reactions, and although all gifts were joyously and graciously received, there were a few notable stand-outs.

It's been quite some time since Audrey has had a stylish watch, so she quite enjoyed getting this one:

Fenya will be travelling to Wales with Cantilon Chamber Choir this summer, so we figured she ought to have her own camera.  This will also give her time to sort out all the menus and features well ahead of her departure, and her reaction speaks volumes:
I got lots of neat stuff, but one of the coolest was this hardcover Captain Canuck collection.  I had all the issues as a kid; Dad bought me issue #1 from a motel newsstand in Saskatchewan or Manitoba when I was 8, after I had seen an article about it in his Macleans magazine. I also received an exceptional t-shirt, but it has yet to be captured on film.

In terms of sheer gift enjoyment however, nothing can top the giraffe tuque that Fenya picked up for Glory in Banff this summer.

This thing went on her head right after she got it, and we saw Glory's hair very little for the next few days.  She wore it around the house:

She wore it sledding:

She has even worn it to bed:

I'm no stranger to the joys of simple pleasures and you don't need to read much farther in the blog archives to back that up.  That said, I can't think of an object that has brought as much joy to me as this hat has to Glory, and some of these objects have cost hundreds of dollars!  I have a feeling that if I pay really close attention, she might just teach me how it's done, or perhaps she'll just help me to remember it.

Until then, I guess I'll just work on keeping my head covered and being grateful, eh?