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.