Thursday, April 26, 2012

North Korea's Primary Export is Krazy

Even sadder than the tragic situation in Syria, to me at least, is that of North Korea.  While a generation of malnourished drones grow up worshiping a magical hardliner dynasty, their military wastes HALF A BILLION DOLLARS on a rocket that not only destroyed itself almost immediately after launch, but which also cost them their latest food deal with the United States.

I had high hopes that Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un, might be just a little less reprehensible than his ancestors, but since he followed up the rocket fiasco with a May Day-Red Square style parade to showcase a bunch of long range missiles that wouldn't have intimidated anyone with a lick of sense even if they hadn't been fake, which of course, they were.

If it wouldn't make me as evil as their own leaders, I would wish for North Korea to actually launch an attack so that their military could be swiftly defeated and disassembled, their regime changed and their existing leadership tried in the Hague while their people get taught how to farm again.  But like I said, evil.

Despite my general optimism, I cannot conjure up a happy ending for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, no matter how hard I try.  After more than a half-century at the helm, there is simply no way that those in power are going to relinquish it willingly, and their stranglehold on the starving populace combined with the mesmerized cults of personality that govern their military make an Arab Spring scenario equally unlikely.  I guess we can count on the perpetual cycle of pity and anger we feel as this unlikely Communist monarchy alternates between begging for food and threatening an Asiatic nuclear holocaust.  If I were North Korea, I'd be extremely worried about getting framed for some cross-border atrocity all Tom Clancy style, so that NATO, the US, South Korea, Japan, or any combination of the above plus anyone else just sick and tired of the endless posturing finally have their excuse to roll in and re-decorate.  Make no mistake, this is a rotten, rotten idea, but someday, and may that day never come, it might be a desirable alternative to whatever madness comes out Pyongyang in the future.

At this point, it seems like the best we can hope for is that their nationalistic insanity one day manifests itself in a more peaceful, constructive and (dare we hope?) funky fashion.

No, it's not realistic, but at least it's hopeful.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Same As It Never Was: Alberta Votes 2012

In a stunning turn of events, not much seems to have changed.

Despite almost every poll and media outlet predicting a Wildrose government, and probably a majority government at that, the Progressive Conservatives not only held onto the reins of power, but finished with a commanding majority government yet again.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this, it might be "Don't let the polls dictate how you vote".  Most 'pundits' are giving some of the credit for the Tories' stunning victory to progressive voters who moved from their traditional support of the Liberals and NDP to the PCs in order to head off a possible Wildrose government, in a classic illustration of "better the devil you know..."  This has disappointed a lot of people on the political left, who say the electorate is better off voting for something than against it, and that this election ended up being about the triumph of fear over anger; fear of a Wildrose government trumping the anger over  PC mismanagement and arrogance.

There are a couple of other possibilities though, the most intriguing of which (to me, at least) is that this election may reflect a de facto acceptance of Alberta as a single party province.  

Alison Redford's unexpected leadership victory was achieved with overtures to nurses, teachers and mums, and garnished liberally (!) with the promise of change from 'business as usual' politics.  She reflected a significant divergence from the 'Old Boys Club' in many ways, and the subsequent departure of many of these old boys, either by quietly retiring or, in the case of fiscal hawk and leadership rival Ted Morton, by getting ousted from his seat, only makes the contrast between the old and the new PC party even more distinct.

By moving her party closer to the centre, a position left vacant since the Ralph Klein years, Redford broadened her appeal to include a big chunk of the Undecided, those who would normally support the left and centre left, and many who didn't even bother to cast a vote last time around.  If CBC is correct in their story and "57% of Alberta voters cast ballot" compared to the miserable 40% who did so in 2008, then we are looking at an incredible increase in voter engagement, which can only bode well for democracy in general.  Consider this comment from WindsorKnot in response to that story:

57% in 2012 up from 40% in 2008. Explains a lot. 
Helps one to understand why the moderately or centrist positioned PCs did so well over their more right-wing or radical opponents. The more people vote, the greater the appeal to the political centre. A truism in yesteryear. A truism now. 
Explains how in years past, when Canadians did vote in large numbers, why politics was dominated by big-tent parties, fluid in their approach to problem solving, pragmatic rather ideological in platform, and moderate in governance. We were better governed in the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s. Why? For starters, we had a wider pool from which to choose our political leaders. As an added bonus, more people held them to account. 
Also explains why the pundits and pollsters got it so wrong. They're use to talking to a minority who is politically engaged and ignoring everybody else. When everybody is involved, the political ground becomes fluid and responsive to people's concerns. Spin doctors have less influence.
There were very few complaints about the parliamentary system when everybody voted. It really does work best when the electorate is actively engaged. The first lesson we should be teaching in high school civics class is a simple one: when the time comes, get out and vote!

An astonishing 72% of the electorate showed up when the Social Credit party lost to Peter Lougheed's Tories back in 1971, upsetting one dynasty to initiate their own, but there was no internet back then, so what else could people do with their time?

There are those who disparage strategic voting as both cynical and ineffective, claiming that democracy is best served when people vote for the candidate or party which best represents their own views.  But on the other hand, a person who voted Liberal last time around but cast his vote for the NDP this time hasn't necessarily abandoned their principles so much as shifted them slightly, and in doing so, may effect a greater change, as happened in Edmonton-Calder where David Eggen upset a formidable PC opponent.  Perhaps this might be better referred to as tactical voting; I'm not sure.

Some of the people who voted for the Redford Progressive Conservatives (and hasn't it been a while since we heard so much emphasis on the p-word portion of their name?) might have done so out of fear, but there are undoubtedly those who supported her out of hope, who are saying, "wait a minute, let's see what she does next..."  Even Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman said, "The Tories owe us big time.  I hope they remember this."

I hope so too. 

Even more, I hope those voters haven't been duped, and that party insiders don't use the residual fear collected over the campaign to oust Redford in some sort of 'Night of the Long Knives' scenario.  Former Premier Ed Stelmach brought in a huge majority government and also passed a critical 'Leadership Review', but still felt pressured to go after only one term in office; I hope Ms. Redford fares better.

In the meantime, despite my still never having voted for the PCs, I fully intend to buy a Tory membership the next time there is a leadership race. Because in a single-party province, that will probably be the single best opportunity for me to have a say in who my Premier is.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Signs of Reversal

Less than 72 hours after posting my personal rationalization of strategic voting in my riding, I am abandoning the premise, at least for this time around.

Why? Mostly because the strategic candidate in my riding doesn't appear to need any help.  He is not only the incumbent, but also a cabinet minister.  His Wildrose challenger initially tried to garner support by raffling off a big-screen TV in exchange for people putting up his lawn signs, and the Twitter feed on his webpage makes numerous refences to free food.

It's hardly scientific, but I have seen exactly one lawn sign from the Wildrose candidate that wasn't in a park or boulevard, whereas the PC has a strong presence on lawns and private fences all over the neighbourhood (in addition to strong representations along sidewalks, in ditches, etc).

In the end, what differentiates strategic from tactical thinking is simply the scope of the timeframe you are looking at.  In my case, where my primary objective of keeping the Wildrose from forming the government appears to already be met, I want to send a message to the next actual 'progressive' candidate.  A message that at least one person appreciates their platform, or embraces their ideology.

In the end, I feel much better voting for something as opposed to against it.

Regardless of your feelings or ideologies, I hope you take advantage of this historic election and get out to vote today if you live in Alberta!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Who Ya Gonna Call? ROSEBUSTERS

I'm looking at next week with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. As a guy who generally gravitates to the center-left, it has been a little gratifying to see the reigning PCs facing possible replacement after four decades in power. On the other hand, the party poised to replace them, the Wildrose Alberta Party, gives me the absolute collywobbles.

It's not so much that they are right wing, although obviously that is a concern to me. I like capitalism, but I love fairness and oversight, so rampant privatization and unfettered development has zero appeal to me. Alberta has always been a small-c conservative province, both fiscally and socially, and since the Progressive Conservatives have shifted a bit to the left with the new leader's overtures towards teachers and nurses, this alienation has driven many of the party faithful into the waiting arms of the Wildrose, or as I like to call them, the Regressive Conservatives. This is the reason that when you saw sweeping change in the Soviet Union, a lot of the old guard were retired, relocated, or developed sudden and terminal illnesses.

In my riding, the incumbent PC is a cabinet minister, and the Liberal and NDP candidates are fairly low profile. Three blocks south of me, David Eggen is giving the NDP a good shot at that jurisdiction, but where I am, the credible opposition is the Wildrose, which puts me in serious consideration of voting PC for the first time in my life.

I've never been a big fan of strategic voting; I've always felt we should vote for the candidate or party we feel best represents us, and even if your choice doesn't get in, at least you have some concrete encouragement for next time around that the support may be there.

But that's the future, and I need to live in the province now, and for the next four years. I haves lot of gripes with the Tories for the ways they've muzzled opposition, crippled healthcare, and handled education, but those issues could become even more critical under a Wildrose government, so as much as I hate voting against something instead of in support for something, I find myself preparing to hold my nose on Monday and voting PC, and justifying it as support for their new Red Tory leader.

When I hear thoughtful and compassionate people talk about voting Wildrose to 'send a message to the Tories', or to facilitate change, I have to shake my head. This isn't the change I want to see where I live.

  • Tolerating intolerance as free speech
  • Scrapping the Alberta Human Rights Commission
  • A leader who denies climate change
  • Closing hospitals
  • Closing schools
  • Privatizing healthcare
  • Rampant cuts to services
  • Soft royalty rates for resource extractors
  • More Public-Private Partnerships for new school construction
  • Reopening the contentious and divisive airport debate here in Edmonton
  • Stalling the construction of the new Royal Alberta Museum
I should say here that my biggest fear of a Wildrose government is not misrepresentation, it's that maybe we Albertans have been fooling ourselves all these years. Maybe as a whole, we aren't the modern, inclusive, progressive and cosmopolitan citizens we claim to be. Maybe these regressive, nostalgic, homophobic and insular hyper-capitalists are a better reflection of the Marthas and Henrys that make up our population. And if that's the case, things run a strong chance of getting a lot worse before they get better, as people first stop coming to Alberta in the first place, and others just get tired and move on to greener pastures, whether they are red, blue or orange.

After a record low voter turnout in the last provincial election, my first hope is that Monday's results reflect the values, wishes and hopes of the true majority of Albertans, which is already a challenge in our 'first past the post' electoral system.

My second hope is that the Wildrose are not the governing party, and my vote will reflect that.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Petri Keen

Having an appreciation for design and theme makes me pretty susceptible to kitsch, even potentially unsettling kitsch.


I've been a fan of the game Pandemic by Z-Man Games since I picked it up about a year ago. It is a collaborative game where the players adopt different roles (Scientist, Dispatcher, Medic, etc) and work together to find the cures to four diseases before they become so widespread they're unstoppable.


Incidents of the four different diseases are represented by different colored wooden blocks, but these innocent looking geometrics take on a sinister aspect when three of them are already resting on Baghdad, and that city's card reappears, meaning the disease will now outbreak in all five neighboring cities. ("All right, take a charter flight to Miami, then get to the CDC in Atlanta so you can catch the shuttle to the research station in Baghdad; we have a chance of stopping it before it breaks out in Algiers..." "Okay Fenya, I'm on it!")


I picked up the expansion pack entitled On the Brink yesterday, which includes new cards, new roles and three new scenarios, including one where one player assumes the role of a bio-terrorist, actually trying to thwart the other players in their mission to save humanity. Ah well, like Alfred says, some men just want to watch the world burn, I suppose.


Adding variety to a game like this is an excellent way to prolong its longevity, but it isn't always needed; after all, I keep coming back to Monopoly and Reversi as much for the familiarity as anything else. But if I am being honest with myself (which I try to do as little as possible), the main reason for my buying On the Brink is for the petri dishes they give you to house the disease blocks.


These containers adds very little organizational structure or efficiency to the game, as the teeny tiny zip-loc bags did an entirely adequate job of keeping the red blocks (which I today referred to as viral haemorrhagic fever) from getting mixed up with the black (which Fenya named supercalifragilisticexpialidociosis). In fact, they wont even fit into the original game box, which the zip-locs did.


No, what they bring is a chilling bit of verisimilitude and set dressing to a challenging game with excellent design, and a level of rising tension I haven't encountered since the edition of Space Hulk with the timed turns. When you find a cure and get the last block of that colour off the board, it cannot come back, and let me tell you, putting the lid on that particular petri dish, knowing you've seen the last of it? Very, very satisfying.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Other Dozen Mechs

I learned long ago that, for me at least, painting projects go more quickly and easily if I forego a rigid schedule and paint what I want to paint. I had built up enough inertia having painted all my Valhallan tanks last year, that doing all the infantry felt more like a natural evolution of the process and less like an onerous chore.

Unfortunately, when it comes to painting the battlemechs from the Anniversary box, painting all my faves in the first batch meant that I was left a lot of ugly-ass gaijin mecha in the second half. This really put my gumption to the test, as my inspiration had almost completely dried up.

Thankfully, it was pointed out to me that if I already thought the models were ugly, I really had nothing to lose and could indulge myself and experiment a bit. The photo below is the result of that.


The red 80 ton Awesome is an homage to my old Warhammer mech paint job, which was derived largely from the original box art. The mechs are pretty similar, so the nostalgia felt like a good fit. Likewise the shades of brown on the Rifleman looking Jagermech, which I now find strangely reminiscent of corduroy.

The armless mechs got camo treatments; a semi geometric urban pattern for the Cicada, and what supposed to be aquatic camouflage for the Jenner. Ah well, succeed or fail, they're done now. I am fairly satisfied with the skull-faced Banshee and the attempted ace of spades on his right shoulder, as well as the autumn woodlands camo on what I'd thought was a Victor but is actually a Vindicator.

I had already finished the green and purple Commando before I realized I had been so conscientious about not turning it into the Hulk, that it had become pretty much a nija turtle. I liked the colors too much to change it though (plus I'm lazy). The orange and yellow Quickdraw was the result of my wife's insistence that I attempt at least one gradient in this lot, and I figured the Western-themed name and gunfighter pose warranted a 'Sundowner' paint job. The Cyclops, Dervish, whitworth and Trebuchet I just tried to keep tidy, and the armor patterns on their torsos gave rise to the icons I ended painting on the last two.

It's been fun revisiting the 80s in this way, a time when I painted many a battlemech and fought many a hex-based battle, before moving on to the more free form Warhammer 40,000. I only hope the gameplay is as fun as I remember it being!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Spacial Education

I've been a big fan of artillery games since playing Super Atomic Cannons on an Apple II in Junior High.  These are the games where you enter two values, one for cannon elevation or bearing and the other for force or speed.  This would determine the trajectory of your shot, and you would subsequently adjust one or both of the values to account for intervening hills and the effects of wind, and try to destroy your opponent's tank, cannon or emplacement before he did the same to yours.

Later iterations, like Scorch and Worms, added a variety of upgraded weapons and terrain that could be destroyed, but a simpler, space-based version has been my favourite for years.

In Gravity Wars, you view the action from a top-down perspective, as two spaceships alternate firing missiles at each other.  As you can surmise from the name, the gravitational pull of nearby planets can have a pronounced effect on the path of your shots, which varies depending on their density.  It all sounds very intense and slide rule-ish, but in reality, the game is surprisingly intuitive, and both of my girls enjoy playing it quite a bit.

I've played it on my Amiga and a variety of PCs, but I'm currently enjoying it as an app on the iPad (although it's made for the iPhone).  They've dispensed with the numerical entry in favour of a simple but effective graphical interface that makes the gameplay quick and easy.  I love playing it with Fenya and Glory as we can pick it up and put it down easily, and playing multiple rounds takes a long time to become tiresome, as every new engagement is like a puzzle to be solved as you work out your firing solution while the enemy shots draw closer and closer.  When they start studying parabolas and the like in math, I hope they recognize them from this game.

Maybe there is a lesson to be learned as well about the fickle nature of ballistic projectiles, as illustrated by the near miss I did to myself in the picture above.  Or even more spectacularly in the picture below; my second shot of this particular game, and the shot took 3-4 minutes to resolve.

I haven't yet witnessed a non-terminating shot, but I have to think it is possible for a shot to enter into a stable pattern and orbit the area in perpetuity, which I think you would have to treat as a complete do-over.