Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Eyes Have It

It turns out, surprisingly enough, that I actually do have a maximum level of tolerance for my own indolence, and I reached it back in April. Taking advantage of a discounted monthly pass program offered through my workplace, I kitted myself out and began swimming at the city pool each morning before heading off to work.

Near-daily aquatics wasn't a decision I made easily; I love sleeping in, and am famously averse to exercise, due to an unfortunate combination of boring easily and being intrinsically lazy. But since leaving retail 6 years ago, I have managed to become even doughier than I was then, and finally got to a point even I couldn't stand.

The adjustment hasn't been onerous, but has required some adaptations on my part; I miss being around in the morning when the girls are getting ready for school, since I am out the door before they are out of bed. And I can't stay up much past ten o'clock during the week, although that probably isn't a bad thing. There is no more prepping of that day's lunch in the morning anymore either, since it needs to be ready to go first thing in the a.m..

At long last, I also have a use for the Warhammer duffle bag I got at the last GW Manager's Conference, since it is just the right size for my towel, toiletries, trunks, goggles, and a pair of socks. Buying a combination lock for the first time since university was a bit nostalgic as well, and it stays latched onto one of the handles so I don't misplace it. The bag is on the table when i go to bed, so in the morning I throw my lunch and a juice box into my work satchel and march out the door, sockless, with both bags.

It is about a 6-7 minute drive to Grand Trunk, 1 minute of which is navigating their craterous parking lot. Seriously, I know this is Edmonton, but if I didn't know better, I would think some crazed pilot came up short trying to drop a Durandal anti-runway bomb onto the City Centre Airport about 1 klick south.

I stroll in and scan the barcode on my pass card before heading off to the locker room. Crowds are small enough in the morning that they don't even bother issuing wristbands, which is nice. Sometimes I will have the locker room to myself, but usually there are 3-6 men coming or going to either the pool or the fitness centre. I am nowhere close to being either the oldest or the youngest, as there is a core group of older gents there almost every day, plus a couple fellows in their 20s and 30s, but so far, I am the only one there with a Darth Vader towel.

 

It's taken me a while to get my routine down in terms of what gets stowed where in the locker, so I don't have to rummage about too much when I return, but I think I have it figured out now, and can get into the pool without too much delay. My first time in was a devastating blow to my ego; I mean, I was fully aware that I was terribly out of shape, I'm not delusional, but there was a time in my life when I would rather swim some place than walk there. Seriously, before I discovered that the canals of Venice are pretty much a sewer, I thought living there would be keen, and you could swim everywhere you needed to go. I swam across Lake Windermere, I did a swim-a-thon, I even swam the 1500M freestyle with Keyano.

Mind you, that was three decades (and a bit) ago, so my first time in, I did 8 lengths of the 25m pool, stopping at each end to catch my breath, and berated myself for such a daft idea. Why did I buy the pass first? I could have bought a punch card for openers, to try it on for size!

Still, there might have been a method to my madness, as the pass committed me to going as often as I was able, since i am also somewhat parsimonious In fact, the original plan was a Mon-Wed-Fri sort of affair, but changes to routine make compliance difficult for me, so it became easier to go every day. Less to sort out, nothing to remember: if I am going to work, I am going to the pool.

A month later, it has gotten a bit easier, surprisingly. I am up to 12 lengths now, mixing up breast stroke and front crawl; still nothing to brag about, but I am doing them up to 4 at a time at least, and no longer feel quite so much like I have to size up the lifeguard to insure they are capable of lifting me out of the pool before starting my swim. The goggles have been instrumental in keeping the chlorine from making me even squintier than I already am, plus lizard eyes FTW.

Afterwards, I return to the locker for my towel and the bottle of combination body-wash and shampoo one of the Newfound-lads left here (damned convenient that stuff, and I even saw a bottle at the store that triples up as shaving cream!), rinse out my suit, shower off and get dressed. I drink my juice box on the way to work, which not only slakes my thirst, but I think improves my blood sugar enough to keep me from getting hangry on the drive. Once at work, I have enough time to sort out a 75 cent latte from the downstairs machine, and a couple of pieces of peanut butter toast at my desk, and the day is off to a fairly decent start.

I don't really have a goal in all this, it is simply enough for the present that I am doing something that prevents me from becoming completely sedentary. I hope to eventually increase my lap count, and who knows? If my endurance increases a bit, maybe it is time to start that dodgeball team that some of the Geekquinox crew were talking about...

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Measure of It

We spent this weekend at Rundle's Mission on Pigeon Lake, along with a number of other families from our church. Despite a dismal forecast, the weather was awesome throughout the weekend, enabling the flying of kites, the playing of bocce, and lots of just sitting around enjoying each other's company.

 

I declared at the opening of the weekend that I wanted to leave with the same number of family members I started with, but perhaps come away with more friends, and I feel we accomplished that. Tara and Jerry joined us for the weekend, and Jerry's son Jason came out for a couple of nights too. We met people we knew by sight but not really by name, which is the real purpose of the weekend.

You get together together for perhaps an hour a week under normal circumstances, but the opportunity to both work, play and live together tells you so much more about each other: who is more competitive, who is adventurous, who pulls their weight during clean-up (pretty much everybody, thankfully!) and so on.

It is great watching the kids grow up out there, too. Glory has attended since she was 4, but watching someone else turn from an angry and potentially misguided adolescent turn into a typical and friendly teenaged boy, with all the inspiration and desperation associated with that stage of life, is a good reminder of how none of us are the same as we used to be.

So many kinds of families as well, from the typical mom and dad plus kids format, to the couple who met later in life but didn't let that stop them from having a child together, to the older lady who looks after her friend like a sister, because 'someone should'. I hope I have enough gumption to go to clown camp after I retire so I can cheer people up at the hospital, as she plans to!

 

One of the new attendees earned the nickname 'Il Boccissimo' for his almost supernatural prowess at bocce ball, one of the favourite activities on the fair weather days. (That's him in the blue shirt above.). A delightful pastime that mimics a sport, but is truly a game, what with the uneven ground, sticks, twigs and roots conspiring to end your shot askew, and kids and dogs wandering into the playing area at any given moment. At least there is plenty of time between throws to admire a (largely lucky) shot or the weather, or to sip a cold beverage.

There is no word yet as to whether Il Boccissimo intends to join the pro tour or not, but some sort of sponsorship offer is anticipated.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I am already extremely excited about one of this fall's new television shows, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so I was very happy when this brief promo finally appeared this weekend.  There are a number of reasons for my anticipation, but among the most important are:
  • More (and hopefully deeper) looks into the Marvel Cinematic Universe
  • The return of Joss Whedon to television (and hopefully some big story arcs)
  • Adventure television I can actually watch with both of my daughters
  • An opportunity to build on the excellent work done in the Marvel One-Shot short films
  • Something cool and highly anticipated coming on network television for once, and,
  • The return of beloved supporting character Agent Phil Coulson, and his elevation to lead



Yeah, there are going to be some challenges, and some commenters are already clamoring for more cameos, more established heroes, and so on, but even if all we get is something like The X-Files set against the backdrop of the Marvel Universe, I am still going to be content.  I don't know how much of a hand Whedon will have in the day-to-day operation of the show, but he also has a proven knack for establishing tone and direction, and finding gifted writers and directors capable of filling in everything else.

If you have never watched the Marvel One-Shots before, take a few minutes to check them out, they are quite good, and show just how much can be established with good dialogue, a cohesive universe, and a bit of stock footage.

The Consultant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgUjlH4vywM

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAMgkpQYOSQ

Clip from Item 47 (special feature on The Avengers disc)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfTUnunSJts

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dear God

(No, this isn't the XTC song of the same name, though it could well enough be...)



I just finished watching the 1990 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle Joe Versus The Volcano with two of my best mates.  You know Lord, that I've used this movie as a shorthand to find those of similar spirit, even among those of differing beliefs (or none at all) for many a year now.  And the prayer that Joe utters is one that could well have come from me own lips:

Dear God
Whose Name I Do Not Know  
Thank You for My Life
I Forgot How Big..
.

It's my birthday today, and I have no right or claim to the good things in my life:
A loving, lovely wife,
Two brilliant affectionate daughters who think the world of me
A group of Friends the envy of anyone with any sense
A great family of birth and by choice
It's been a long ways Lord, on a crooked road, to get me to the point where I'm aware of just how lucky and blessed I am, and just how much work might be required to maintain it, and I think I'm prepared; I am ready for the long haul.  Protect us  from ourselves and the Duck of Death.  Please continue to help me, and thank you; I will endeavour not to forget how big you really are...

In gratitude, always,

Stephen

Monday, May 6, 2013

I Sing of Arms and The Man - Iron Man 3

(Working very hard to keep this spoiler-free; please let me know if I let the side down!)

Skimming the user reviews on IMDb, as well as surveying the people I saw it with on Friday, it is clear that despite its initial success (second highest opening weekend of all time, after last year's The Avengers) Iron Man 3 is a very divisive movie.



It is pretty unusual for a blockbuster film like this to generate as much negativity as IM3 has.  Some, but not all, of the less than 4 (out of 10) crowd are fanboys who are disappointed at how little the Mandarin has in common with the same character from the comics, especially since he was Iron Man's arch-nemesis for many years.  I get that, but still, a Fu Manchu knock off whose powers stem from magic rings taken from an alien spaceship would have been a pretty hard sell to today's movie audiences.  Portraying him as a nationless terrorist backed by an organization called Ten Rings (and hinted at in the very first Iron Man film) was a good idea, and Ben Kingsley's layered portrayal just made it that much better.



Others are upset that there is much less in the way of heroic set-pieces featuring Tony Stark in the suit of his creation, as in, "hey, shouldn't my Iron Man movie have more Iron Man in it?"  Again, reasonable, it is almost as though Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. have created their own genre here, and new writer/director Shane Black is kind of making it up as he goes, but is an Iron Man movie one which features Iron Man in it, or one in which you get more Iron Man than anything else?

If you want the former, you are bound to be disappointed.  IM3 opens with Tony Stark struggling to deal with the repercussions of what happened in The Avengers.  After all, this is all old hat to us funny-book fans, but gods, aliens and monsters (on both sides!) converging on New York and almost resulting in your own demise would be a lot for anyone to take in, even a billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist.  As a result, he can't sleep, and is having growing trouble relating to others, even those closest to him.  As one person remarks glibly in the film, "When that guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety kind of...went."

Some may call it overacting, but I think Downey's take on Tony Stark's tragic deconstruction is nothing short of brilliant, maybe his best work since Chaplin. Sure, a lot of this effect could stem Shane Black's excellent dialogue, but RDJ carries a lot of emotion in many of his scenes, often without raising his voice.  Once again, he shows that if you want a nuanced portrayal of a charismatic genius with issues, whether it is a Victorian detective or super-powered Howard Hughes, Robert Downey Jr. should be your first call.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, from Guy Pearce as the ominous Aldrich Killian, to Rebecca Black as the conflicted bio-science researcher Maya Hansen, and the always awesome Gwyneth Paltrow.  Don Cheadle gets a little more to do as the newly re-branded Iron Patriot, and even former director Jon Favreau gets to bust out his acting chops a little as former bodyguard 'Happy' Hogan, now head of security for Stark Industries.  That's a lot of talent to have on hand for a summertime comic book movie.

I think the worst thing you can say about Iron Man 3 is that it is bold.  Shane Black said from the onset that he wanted a departure from what had gone before, something more in the vein of a Tom Clancy techno-thriller, that didn't end up with a guy in a metal suit beating up on a guy in a bigger metal suit.  The plot is a bit convoluted and maybe even a bit contrived in places (of all the garages in Podunk Tennessee, you end up at the one where a kid who likes to tinker lives? Really?), but I think it succeeds far more often than it fails.  The story also does a great job switching gears in terms of the nature of the villain, so I highly recommend seeing it before someone ruins the surprise for you.

There are a lot of us who were eagerly awaiting this movie, people who said from the get-go that a Tony Stark movie could be awesome, even if Iron Man never showed up in it at all, and this is what gives me the greatest hope for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show coming this fall. The Marvel Universe has always been a funhouse reflection of our own, and this goes just as strongly for the new Cinematic universe as it has for the half-century of the comic one.  Seeing how people both ordinary and extraordinary deal with larger than life situations and threats is the source of the entertainment, so for me, watching Tony Stark defending himself armed with only one gauntlet and one boot of his vaunted Mk 42 armor was as good a set-piece as any of the fights in the previous two films.

Should you see this film?  Probably.  If you dislike surprises, you should maybe wait until video.  If you really dislike inconsistencies or loose ends in a plot, you might want to give IM3 a miss.  If you were hoping for a broader view of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is almost none to be had here: Nick Fury gives the series a miss for the first time, and S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't even get a mention.  Parents of young children should be advised: this movie is both darker in tone and tighter in intensity than any Marvel movie to date, so you may want to preview it sans children.  My own 10 and 14 year-old daughters enjoyed it immensely though.

If you enjoyed the first two, I don't think you will be disappointed this time around, unless the divergences from the comics gets your proverbial knickers in a twist.  If you like the directing or more probably the writing of Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang being probably the best example), the screenplay he has written with Drew Pearce has all the twists, turns, and whip-smart dialogue you could hope for, as well as a couple of quieter moments. If you appreciate misdirection, this movie delivers like a journeyman stage magician.

Personally, I think Iron Man 3 is just as strong an entry as the first one, with better performances and dialogue.  I think it is a better superhero trilogy capper than even Christopher Nolan's excellent Dark Knight Rises.

No, if I have a complaint it is that this is probably the penultimate appearance of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man.  I believe he is contracted for Avengers 2, and I am willing to bet that is the last we see of him.  Marvel's Phase 2 is ramping up, with all new titles and licenses like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man, so even if they did want to make Iron Man 4, it would be, what, 2017 or so?  No one is talking about that far ahead, but no one is talking about IM4 as being anywhere close to inevitable at this point.

At any rate, a tip of the hat to Shane Black and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige for having the guts to make such a bold departure, and for having it turn out to be such an entertaining film.  If this can be maintained, every film they make will see me in the audience.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

G&G VIII - Operation: Shell Game

Once again we have convened for the 8th annual Gaming & Guiness, and for the first time, we are playing miniatures outside the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It is a lot easier to get initiates to jump in when they only have to buy and paint a single ship, and Mongoose's Call to Arms: Star Fleet Battles accomplishes this fairly adroitly.
Most miniature games are designed as two-player affairs, with each commander responsible for selecting and commanding an army, warband or fleet. In most instances it is a simple matter to adapt this paradigm to a multi-player context, with each player controlling a single element; in this case, either an Enterprise-like Constitution class heavy cruiser or their classic nemesis classic D7 Klingon battlecruiser.
Earl and I already have our own fleets, and I painted up some ships for the out of towners, but Mike T. and Pete painted up their own in a single afternoon at my place, and the results were very good.


We ended up with a 4 on 4 battle that Earl and I designed our own scenario for entitled "Operation: Shell Game". Most of these sorts of games work better or are more memorable if there is some sort of narrative involved, so we decided to have the Klingons escorting 4 small, neutrally flagged freighters across the board. The premise was that one of the ships would contain illegal weapons the UFP needed to destroy, and another would be holding hostages they would need to rescue. Although the Federation is at war with the Klingons, they could not directly attack the freighters since they were technically non-combatants.

In order to determine the contents of a freighter, a Federation ship would need to get within six inches of it and roll as many dice as their Labs characteristic (8) and meet a total of 29, meaning that they should only need 1-2 turns of scanning to accomplish this.
I had the basic premise in my head weeks ago, but getting the points and victory conditions figured outwas a real team effort. The rewards for finding and retrieving the hostages had to be great enough that the Starfleet players didn't simply ignore them and try to win by simply eliminating the hostiles. The punishment for their accidentally destroying the ship with the hostages had to be severe as well, so we agreed that this would be a total loss for the Federation.
Scott's USS Intrepid leapt across the board at the Klingon right flank and unleashed a volley of photon torpedoes at Island Mike's IKV Black Dog; he returned fire with his disruptors and battle was joined. It only took a couple of turns for everyone to get into a fairly substantive knife fight near the centre of the table, which suited us Klingons just fine, since that was where the decoys were.
The Intrepid's impetuousness paid off, when they identified the merchant vessel Blood Eagle as containing the metaphasic weapons, and then destroyed it with concentrated short-range fire shortly after that. Meanwhile, on the other flank, the freighter Crimson Dagger slipped away unscathed with it's cargo of hostages bound for a 're-education facility' deep within the Klingon Empire.
In the end, that escape allowed the Klingons to eke out a narrow victory, since the P'Tahk and Black Dog were lost with all hands, and the First Blood was a crippled hulk by the time the smoke cleared. My own vessel, IKV Vengeance, came away relatively unscathed, but more importantly, took out Rob's shieldless USS Poltava with with a volley that included a staggering and unprecedented six critical hits.
The Federation did manage to interdict the Klingon WMDs (with the sensor logs to prove it), but at significant cost, namely the total loss of both the Poltava and the Hood (as well as a shipload of hostages).
Most importantly, for a homegrown scenario designed by a bunch of rookies, we had equal portions of fun and tension for the duration. And none of the models got broken, which was also very gratifying.