Sunday, July 29, 2012

Victory Through Attrition

The past week had a number of nerdy highlights: I saw the new Batman movie (although viewing a movie that made $160 million its opening weekend is hardly a departure from the mainstream), painted some Star Trek miniatures, and got in a game of Warhammer 40,000.

It's the first game I've played since G&G back in May, and maybe my third or fourth this year. I still like the models and enjoy the game, but especially with the arrival of summer, other distractions abound, and they convince me that the necessary preparations involved to play a game are not a sufficiently rewarding use of my timeframes earmarked for frivolity. What with finding an opponent, arranging a time, picking a venue, choosing an army, writing a list, insuring everything is packed, muling it over and deploying all your models, miniature war gaming is possibly the least spontaneous leisure activity there is.

Still, any excuse to push model soldiers around a tabletop is a good one, and when executed with the right attitude and the correct people, is an unequalled form of entertainment.

Not being a tournament player, or someone so hard up for opposition that I need to play with strangers, means that I get to play exclusively with the correct people. Even among them, Scott is an exemplar, ready to critically disadvantage himself if a course of action does not fit the character of his army or the narrative unwinding over the course of the game.

Scott's Orks have developed significantly over the years, evolving from a fairly grabasstic mob of footsloggers into a swift and deadly mechanized force that have pasted by Dark Angels in may a battle, and over which my Imperial Guard have never known victory. I took a fairly generic list, as I wasn't sure if he was fielding his Orks or perhaps his Eldar, so I needed to be flexible. About fifty regular Valhallan infantry, plus another twenty conscripts and the infamous Bom Squad in the Pterograd Express, joined by a Leman Russ battle tank (Cold Comfort) as well as Lux Cathedra, an Executioner pattern tank bristling with plasma weapons.


We deployed on opposing table quarters, each with a single objective to defend, some ruins in Ork country and a stairway to heaven in my own backfield. With victory going to the side with the most objectives at the end of the game, it is a scenario that generates more than its share of ties, and since my ordinary humans have little hope of running in and taking the Orky objective away from them, I focused on defending my own. With the Imperial Guard, ofttimes your initial goal is simply not losing.


Scotty's Tankbusta boys secured the ruins holding his objective, which also gave them line of sight to Lux Cathedra. This gave me pause, since very few of his greenskins had the firepower to breach the hide of a Leman Russ tank, but the tankbustas certainly might, if they were lucky enough to hit it in the first place. His three trucks split up to cover the flanks, while his big foot mob, led by Mad Doc Grotsnik, took the center, supported by some Killa Kan mini-dreadnoughts. Even more troubling was the mob of Dethkoptas sitting slightly back from the main line of resistance. With enough speed to get practically anywhere on the field, twin linked weapons to make up for their intrinsic lack of accuracy (laccuracy?), and whirling blades capable of turning whole squads of Valhallans into just so many piles of cold cuts, they were the primary threat visible at deployment.

My own forces deployed far from the front, knowing full well that Orks not only had no choice but to come and get me, but also the ability and desire to do exactly that. Hoping my armor was up to the task, I put Lux Cathedra on my left flank, and Cold Comfort and Petrograd Express in the center, with another ruined building covering their right flank. Most of my infantry went up on the hill where my objective was, although I left Commander Chenkov and his Konskripts down in the valley to serve as a lasgun toting speed bump, since they could be replenished if they got wiped out or ran off the board edge.

The Orks got to move and shoot first, but a little luck and a bit of laccuracy meant I was in good shape when my opportunity came, and I was able to roll up the Chimera to toast some of Grotsnik's Orks with the hull mounted heavy flamer and plug up the centre gap. Massed fire from the infantry managed to take down all of the Dethkoptas, which meant my foot troopers might last a turn or two longer. All in all, a satisfactory first turn.


The second turn was less satisfactory as Grotsnik's Orks, all wound up on greenskin angel dust or its prescription equivalent (Ork or not, he's still a Doc), slammed into the front of the Chimera and their leader's power klaw disabled the engine, immobilizing it. Simultaneously, their air support, in the form of a Burna Bommer, showed up and commenced dispatching Valhallans in job lots. On the other flank,the Tankbustas brazenly left their cover (and the objective!) in order to close the distance to Lux Cathedra. While this allowed their Squig Hounds to charge the tank with the explosives gripped in their teeth, the Executioner tank survived, while they did not.

The next couple of turns involved quite a bit of back and forth. While the plasma tank shrugged off a number of shots, it's return fire was wildly inaccurate and ineffective. Although the Petrograd Express was immobilized and its hull mounted flamer disabled, the crazed Orks could not disengage from it until it was destroyed, and there was no room between it and Cold Comfort for another mob to pass through, until it too was destroyed. Meanwhile, the Burna Bommer worked roughshod on my infantry, destroying the command squad along with Marshall Kratten.
The Bom Squad bailed out of their stricken Chimera and turned their weapons upon the Killer Kans attacking its flank, dispatching them handily. After an Orky incendiary bomb dropped on them from the skies however, even these stalwart veterans broke and ran.

The second wave of Konskripts held up one squad of Orks for one turn on the left flank, but amazingly, the squad on the right actually managed to drive off another with a withering volley of lasgun fire.

By the time the bottom of the fourth turn rolled around, the Petrograd Express was a smoking crater, but Scott's Orks were unable to reach the objective behind my few remaining Valhallan infantry, and if I could sanitize his own objective with Lux Cathedra, I would be in a position to win, at least, if the game didn't go to turn five. Even if we played on, he would have to send a squad to secure his own objective, or be forced to play for a draw.

As any Ork will attest, sometimes quantity trumps accuracy, and this was true for the 5 plasma blasts the Leman Russ Executioner sent downrange into the Orks frantically scrabbling for cover. Enough of the high-intensity fusion blasts landed on target that the entire squad was converted into free-floating hydrogen and the occasional scorched tooth.


A fortunate dice roll ended the game there, and Scott graciously conceded defeat. Despite losing my command elements in their entirety, two of my three tanks, and about 70% casualties in my troopers, I had kept the Orks off their objective and protected the Stairway to Heaven.


I'm not sure why the stairs would be so important; a key vantage point, psychic hotspot, or a symbolic gesture critical to morale. One advantage that model armies have over real ones is that they never have to question the value of their sacrifice, since all of them will be back for the next battle anyways.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: He Is Risen Indeed

[My hope is that this review is spoiler-free; let me know if I slip up!]

We had an opportunity to see Christopher Nolan's conclusion to his Batman trilogy tonight, and Audrey and I took it.  I dearly wish we could have seen it earlier for two reasons: the first being a response to the selfish, damaged hominids of the world, a statement that I will not stop being a member of my community, or refrain from gathering in public for my entertainment, or for any other purpose for that matter, and that's all I want to say about Aurora, Colorado for the time being.

The second, far more trivial reason is because I was afraid of spoilers.  I have resolutely avoided all the trailers from the last 5 months or so, as well as any articles, interviews or most dreaded of all, the behind-the-scenes featurette.  I've spoiled all manner of little surprises for myself in this manner in the past, and after Nolan's first two masterful entries in the rich shared history of Batman, I was intent on going in to The Dark Night Rises as unprepared as possible.

It's been known for a while now that the director was looking for a conclusion, the final part of a trilogy to conclude the story begun with Batman Begins, and when Warner Bros. announced that instead of a 4th installment that they intended to reboot the property (as a potential first step in copying Marvel Studios shared cinematic universe), that made it clear that for this movie, all bets were off.  All preconceptions should be abandoned, all the normal expectations and warm familiarity of a seven-decade character and a billion dollar movie franchise meant nothing in terms of what might or might not occur on screen.

I watch films with a critical eye, but not a critic's eye.  I have nowhere near the literary vocabulary nor the insights gained by the actual study of film to articulate myself in such a fashion, but as Mike Baron once said, "a critic's job is to render opinions glibly", and I enjoy films enough to dare sharing my thoughts about what I do and don't like about them.  I do this not so much in hopes of changing people's decision whether or not to see a film, but to prepare them accordingly, since they've probably already decided.  Every movie has an audience; a review should help you figure out if you should be part of it.

In the case of sequels like The Dark Knight Rises, it is probably sufficient to say this: that if you enjoyed the first two films, and want to see a Batman film on just about as large a scale as the character warrants, with hat tips to the Bat-mythos of not only the comic books (especially The Dark Knight Returns and Knightfall) but also the films themselves, then you owe it to yourself to see this film.  And not only that, but to see it quickly, before the ads, toys, and word of mouth starting setting the stage for you until there is nothing left for you to do but see how it turns out.  Plus, TDKR is the first time a third installment in a superhero film series has actually been good, and you owe it to the incredibly fickle movie gods to see the movie that broke the curse.  Somewhere, Shane Black, who is writing and directing Iron Man 3, is surely breathing a sigh of relief.

I maintain that The Avengers is still the best super-hero movie to date, but TDKR brings Nolan's trilogy to a very satisfying close, with epic visuals, fantastic and dynamic characters (new and old), great writing and acting, and a willingness to twist the myths that brought Batman to this point with an artist's recklessness bordering on cinematic brinkmanship.

The two hour and forty-five minute running time flew by; this not a movie that walks on its heels.  The plot ticks along, heedless that there are no daft characters who need to do something stupid in order to keep things moving.  There are cruel people and greedy people to be sure, and desperate people and even foolish ones, but no one walks backwards through a deserted house looking for a serial killer, no one leaves the door unlocked for the bad guy, and no one gullibly accepts an offer from someone they fully know capable of betraying them.

Every character rings true, in triumph and in tragedy, and the ensemble cast presents this brilliantly.  Michael Caine's Alfred is torn between the boy he raised and the tortured man Bruce Wayne has become.  Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle is an incredibly capable thief who is not interested in getting rich, and there is very little danger of mistaking her for the waif from The Princess Diaries.  Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne and Batman both have to figure out why they do what they do, and whether or not a happy ending is even a possibility.

Tom Hardy's Bane, the villain of the piece, is not particularly nuanced, but he is shaded exactly as much as he needs to be.  he is a guttural, muscular, articulate and dispassionate force of nature, an agent of chaos, whose motivations are almost incidental until the conclusion.

Much hay will be made of Bane's 'political' message as he undermines Gotham City, coming as it does less than a year after the Occupy Wall Street movement, but in order to give the trilogy's closure a fitting scope, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan actually looked backwards, not forwards, to the Terror of the French Revolution as seen in Dicken's Tale of Two Cities.

There those who feel Nolan's reach has outstripped his grasp, and that his work collapses under the weight of its own pretension.  For myself, I'm glad I've not yet read the original work, but can appreciate a comic-book movie that deals with 'the best of times and the worst of times', both personally and societally.

The Dark Knight Rises is by no means perfect: Bale's gravelly Batman voice still grates on me, and Banes mask combined with Hardy's gypsy accent make some of Bane's lines unintelligible (although this may have been due to an excess of bass in the theater we saw it in, which, to be fair, did make other scenes noticeably more rumbly), and I honestly think the fight scenes could have been done better, but these are quibbles.

I went into TDKR without really knowing what I wanted from it.  What should happen?  Did I want a happy ending for Bruce Wayne and/or the Batman?  Had I ever wanted it?

Nolan and company have answered the questions I didn't even know I had, and as much I have loved his Batman trilogy, I cannot wait to see what he has planned next.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Patched Up

Sometime in junior high school, I discovered the magazine Starlog.  Long defunct, this magazine explored science-fiction in movies and television, and provided some of my first insights into how those shows were made.

Almost as good as the articles and photos were the advertisements: in the age of Big Bang Theory, it's easy to take nerd culture and geek chic for granted, but in the early 80s, there weren't a lot of shops you could stroll into to find Cinefex magazine, or caps like the crew of the Nostromo wore in Alien.

I never ordered anything from the magazine, and I can't be sure whether this was due to lack of nerve, lack of funds, or an unwillingness to convince my father to use his credit card in order to get me an Imperial Fleet Officer's cap from Star Wars.

This all changed when I started coming face to face with paraphernalia at science-fiction conventions like Con-Version in Calgary, following high school.  The dealer tables in the huckster's room provided me with myriad means of reducing the fire-hazard in my wallet, by converting the incredibly flammable paper currency of the time into all manner of obscure and arcane memorabilia.

One of the first things I ever purchased was a set of Colonial Marines insignia from the film Aliens.  I had them sewn on to a black vest, and got more than a few envious "where do I get one of those?" over the years from fellow fans, and some puzzled glances from the mundanes as well.  Unfortunately, the vest got damp while stored in the basement and suffered an ignominious retirement last year, but some of the patches survived, and may yet be redeployed.

I also got a full set of Leonov crew patches from the movie 2010: Odyssey Two, the Soviet spacecraft used to return to Jupiter and the Discovery spacecraft from the first film.  (You can actually see the Discovery silhouetted against Jupiter's equator on the triangular mission patch.)  At one point, these got sewn on to a set of blue coveralls, and became a quick and easy costume for Halloween, but when the coveralls finally wore out, the patches went into a bag, and have languished there ever since.  If I can find a lightweight jacket or vest, or even another set of inexpensive coveralls, I could see them getting used again.

I received a flight-jacket for my birthday this year, and although I was tempted to put these on it, I am opting for some other pseudo-Soviet insignia I picked up at the final Namao Airshow about twenty years ago instead.  That is, once I get off my butt and track down a tailor to sew them on for me.  But that's a blog post for another day...

It's amazing to me how the frightening and oppressive iconography of the Soviet Union seems almost quaint now, two decades after the Cold War.  But when the move 2010 came out in 1984, the idea of a joint US/Soviet space mission was as much fantasy as it was science fiction.  Now, the U.S. space program needs to rely on the space programs of other countries just to into orbit or visit the International Space Station, including rockets from post-Soviet Russia.

In Joss Whedon's firefly universe, the oppressive central power is the Alliance,which assumes a U.S. team-up with China, the surviving superpowers of that future.  Judging from pilot Wash's flight suit insignia, things haven't (or will not have) changed much from the 2010 of Arthur C. Clarke, at least, not in terms of design...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Farewell Roger

Some things, literal things, figurative things, are simply too heavy to be merely carried.  These are the things that we find we must instead bear.

A literal cross, a figurative cross, a burden, unpleasant tidings, up under the strain, with me; perhaps you have found yourself bearing these in the past, maybe you bear them even now.

Our friend Roger Kett, who Audrey and I both met at Augustana during our time at college in Camrose, bore a lot in his 44 years.  A dedicated church minister in a tiny town in Eastern Alberta, about as remote as one can get without heading towards the DEW Line, he endured repeated challenges to his health, mostly from the cancer that he battled sporadically for a decade and a half and which he finally succumbed to last weekend.  He persevered past the cruel and hurtful manner in which his first marriage ended, and bore himself up to a new love he wed in February of 2011.

His wife, Peggy, left a phone message to let us know of his passing.  This was not unexpected; we had heard that Roger had taken ill, that he was in a hospice, and that his treatments left him unable to see visitors, which I know must have pained him.  People think of me as sociable, as gregarious, but I wasn't fit to carry Roger's sandals in that arena, I couldn't even caddy for him on that course.

In college, Roger was outgoing and effervescent; fluid, dynamic. In maturity, he tempered these qualities with spiritual insight and humility and a brobdingnagian measure of compassion.  When he spoke in the chapel at our ten-year reunion, I was gobsmacked that the man we'd called 'The Rocket', who had played so fast and loose with his blarney-laden rhetoric as a student, could now weave a pithy and compelling address without notes to a spellbound audience.

Roger's spirit I can only describe as unassailable.  Even when elements of his life resembled nothing so much as the miserable tropes of a honky tonk dirge, he never became angry, never became despondent.  He never railed at the universe or questioned the path he felt his Maker had placed him on.  When he wondered aloud if his first marriage had ever contained genuine love, there was no animus, only wonderment; he may have been bewildered, but never beaten.  He carried himself well, as they once said, but now it falls to others to carry him just a little farther.

Peggy's tearful message said that Roger had hoped I would be a pallbearer at his funeral, which is tomorrow in Calgary, which I will be honored to do.  The possibility had never occurred to me, as we hadn't had that much contact since the wedding, but I certainly value the quality of Roger's friendship far more than the scant occasions we had to put it into practice.

It will be my sad privilege to bear Roger a little ways along on his final journey; it is only the figurative weight of his passing that is a burden.  With time, surely even this will be buoyed up by the vibrant memory of a man who never allowed himself to be beaten, only subdued for a time.

Godspeed, my brother.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Derangers Forever

About a two and a half centuries from now, when I was a much younger man, some friends and I signed on for a hitch of off-world military service in the new United Systems Expeditionary Forces.  There had been absolutely no hostile contact with other spacefaring species at that point, but there was always the threat of pirates and cartel militias to the newer, more remote colonies.

The USEF seemed like a great way to travel and gain experience, and maybe even get our post-secondary education paid for when our tour was up.  Well, like the old song says, two outta three ain't bad.

After all the paperwork and drawing our initial gear, we actually needed to take commercial flights out of the gravity well as well as from LaGrange Station to Port Colbourne, where we got to go through Induction and Weapons Training.  The censors got most of the pictures from that time, but I found a couple from one of the demos I managed to squirrel away.

The colonies were protected by Ranger Units, so-named because our extensive patrols saw us 'ranging' all over the place, and also because once we were out in the wilds, we were a handy means for the xenobiology types to collect data on the indigenous wildlife.  We were assigned to Squad D, 22nd Regiment, IV Ranger Division, and quickly developed the nickname 'Derangers' from the colonists we interacted with.

One of the locals, an artist named Dragon Man, offered to do a sketch of us, but after we paid for it, I said, "Hey, that doesn't look like any of us; actually, it looks kinda like you."

D-Man grinned, showing off his elongated canines, and said, "I made 'im good lookin'!  No extra charge."

A standard tour of duty with the USEF runs 36 Earth months, with the first three taken up by Induction and Weapons, then another two for Transit and Orientation.  Orientation was the most interesting, where you learned what you needed to about your new area of operations; gravity differential, length of day, seasonal variances, all that sort of thing.  Then a week with the cultural attache, who brought us up to speed on the different communities we would be working with.  It was (or will be, I guess) surprising how quickly the colonies formed their own identities, coming as they did from a host of cultures and nations.

Our 36 months were fairly quiet, and we only ever discharged our weapons one time, driving off some poachers looking to smuggle out some Hyderan Near-Apes for their stem cells.  We got to work with a Hyderan LRRP (long range reconnaissance patrol) team, who were real pros, but their field toiletry habits took a lot of getting used to.

Partly because of that, near the end of our tour, we got to serve as honor guard at a reception for the new Colonial Administrator.  I'd never believed that stuff about 'men in uniform', but it turned out to have some truth behind it after all.

We never did get our tuition paid for; turns out that was only if you either did at least two tours, ended up in a designated combat zone, or got your commission, which none of us were interested in. Still, I don't regret my time with the USEF; I still keep in contact with most of the Derangers, and some of them are my closest friends to this day. I have a lot of great memories of the places we saw, people and things we met.  

Besides, later on, a bunch of us went and formed a gimmick band together...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Base Motivations

There's a lot of countries I like, but only one I love, so I guess it's a good thing I live in that one, huh? I've never lived outside Canada, so I don't have a real basis for comparison in terms of residing elsewhere, but I've never wanted to, and I have a hard time seeing that changing.

After church today (and discovering that our hymnals do have "Oh Canada" in them), we braved the intermittent rain and headed north to the Edmonton Garrison (formerly CFB Namao) for their Canada Day Block Party, kind of a combination open house and fair.

Glory got a maple leaf airbrushed onto her leg and then enjoyed a pony ride.

Then she and Audrey climbed aboard a Leopard tank while I talked to the crew.

Hearing the military band playing "Sweet Caroline" and "That's the Way (Uh-Huh,Uh-Huh) I Like It" was a little surreal, but enjoyable nonetheless.  And, of course, the ubiquitous mini-donuts.

Mostly it was nice being on the grounds for the first time since the last Namao air show back in the early '90s.  It took us a while to find the park where the festivities were being held, so we ended up driving across a good part of the grounds on streets with names like Ubique Avenue, Korea Road and Vimy Avenue.  Looking at the various parking lots full of cargo trucks, light assault vehicles and tanks provides a sobering reminder of the scope and scale of the operations the various battalions can be called upon to participate in.

It's not the easiest life in the world, the military, and in addition to dangerous work done for comparatively low pay, it's hard to have a sense of community when you are uprooted and relocated at sporadic intervals, and often have to live away from civilians in base housing.

I'm glad the girls had a chance to see where some of these men and women (and their families) work and live, for the opportunity to demystify and normalize this demanding lifestyle, and to be grateful for the sacrifices they make on our behalf, and on behalf of a nation that doesn't always recognize it.

However you chose to observe it, I hope you took a moment to reflect on Canada today, both its history or its future.