Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mm, Canada - Autumnal Geekquinox 2015

Never before has so much drama preceded one of The Rare Hipster's semi-annual dinner parties, at least for Audrey and I: massive scheduling conflicts, events for both girls during the day AND in the evening that required us to arrange chauferring for them, and worst of all, the special guest stars from Vancouver Island couldn't attend because of a terrible and debilitating ailment that afflicted their youngest as she attends her first year of university away from home. To top it all off, I was not only part of the lay worship team leading church service the next day, I was actually delivering the sermon!

So it was not without trepidation that the two of us rolled into this edition of Geekquinox, but after all the maneuvering that had been required, we felt we had earned a night out experiencing Pete's unparalleled hospitality.

The theme this year was "Mm, Canada", with dishes representing all of our nation's provinces. We were encouraged to dress appropriately, and while for most guests this meant red and white apparel or maple leaf accoutrements, Audrey and went in a different direction, representing Canada's youngest and Easternmost province.

The warmth of Harrishal meant my cable-knit sweater would only be a temporary part of my ensemble, but my Goats On The Roof t-shirt underneath assured representation for Canada's other coast, and an homage to our absent friends on the Island.

As usual, Pete was kept exceedingly busy preparing and serving a grand variety of dishes, ably aided by the engaging Ellen. He had planned yet another culinary extravaganza, with 8 courses. One of them was a spirit, simply served, but not only was it one of the strangest highlights of the evening, but a later course included both the surf and complementary turf done to an exquisite standard, so I consider 8 courses to be a bit of an understatement, frankly.

As usual, Pete, his ample kitchen, sous chef Ellen and the Big Green Egg all came together in great form and decadent synergy to comfort and challenge our tastebuds in equal measure.

Chez Pete is not a restaurant and this is not a review, but suffice to say the food was all amazing. However, you've all eaten amazing food before, so let me talk to you about the unconventional and the surprising.

I am no stranger to eating raw meat, but in a fairly limited capacity. I've always been a big fan of sushi, and a couple of years back, Audrey shared a dish of beef carpaccio, which I didn't realize until afterwards was not just rare, but actually uncooked. No less delicious, either.

At past Geekquinoxes Pete has made ceviche, a Latin American dish contain crisp vegetables and raw fish, denatured by citric acid, which I thought was absolutely delightful. This year he upped the ante with not only a delicious steak tartare, a pâté kind of deal with capers and a delightful zip, but also the same recipe made with elk, which I have only ever had, I believe, as a burger in Churchill.

I will say this about the Geekquinox crowd: they are game fish, the lot of 'em. Everyone took a sample of each, and most went back for more. In terms of tasting great while pushing back our culinary boundaries, this was probably the hit of the night, with elk narrowly edging out cow for best in show in this particular preparation.

The second big surprise for me was the potato vodka, from P.E.I. Some spirits I like straight better than others, and vodka is one I would be far more likely to consume in some manner of cocktail, as opposed to, say, whiskey or rum. This vodka was served straight up on a single large ice cube (shaped like a Companion Cube from the game Portal, because: Pete) which gave me a singular opportunity to taste the vodka more than feel it.

Now, I know that vodka was once made almost exclusively from potatoes (not unlike Irish poteen), but that pretty much all the stuff we drink none is made from wheat or neutral grain spirits, and usually distilled multiple times to smooth it out, which can also remove, it turns out, a tremendous amount of character from the beverage.


Not so with the potato vodka; even the nose can tell you that this drink is brought to you by the letter D and that stands for dirt. There is an intrinsic earthiness that pervades the liquid in its entirety, from the first tentative sniffs, to the tip of the tongue and right on through to the aftertaste.

And for a lot of folks, it was a little too much.

For whatever reason (and let's be clear: not dipsomania, reckless abandon or fear of the next day's sermon), I found this terrestrial tipple absolutely intriguing, and said so. Audrey offered me the remainder of hers, and having lived the maxim 'waste not, want not', I dutifully finished the half of hers that she felt unpalatable.

Apparently, many of the womenfolk shared both my wife's antipathy for this pomme de terre potable, as well as my own axiomatic approach to inappropriate disposal of useful liquids, and I soon found myself with 3 more portions to deal with.

Possibly 4; I wasn't paying as close attention as I might have by the time I finished discharging my duties.

Where so many of them had found the soilish characteristics of the potato vodka unbearable, and I myself could not in good faith describe them as particularly pleasant, per se, I was captivated. It helped that the vodka, despite its homeliness and lack of pretension, had a fairly smooth finish, and I wouldn't dream of diluting it in a cocktail. What the heck would complement a potato vodka anyhow, ketchup? Mayonnaise? Blech.

As late as the night went (we tucked into the absolutely incredible steak and lobster with truffle butter and green beans after midnight), it really felt like it was over far too soon. Audrey and I normally stay the night, but the looming sermon, as well as an afternoon concert featuring Cantilon Chamber Choir and Pro Coro at the Winspear, convinced us, regretfully, to return home and sleep in our own beds.

We didn't achieve this goal until after 3:00 am, but time spent with such wonderful company compels one to stay well past last call, and without regret, even standing at a lectern 6 the next day with 4 hours sleep and a bad case of dry mouth and damp palms.

A tip of the sou'wester to Pete and Ellen, and all our Geekquinox companions, for continuing to make these events one of the things I anticipate most, and better even than Christmas, they happen twice a year.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Kicking Tires and Sympathizers

There was a recent article linked to Jalopnik, a vehicle website under the Gawker media umbrella I sometimes peruse, about Brad Pitt having shelled out considerable coin to buy a WWII era German motorcycle. The original article came from British tabloid the Daily Mirror, and the Gawker linkage came courtesy of their full-on gossip site, Defamer. Both articles made this machine's Nazi heritage the key point of their respective headlines, i.e.  "Brad Pitt spends $385,000 to ride around town like a sexy Nazi", or the Mirror's characterization "Brad Pitt splashes out £250,000 on Nazi motorbike".

Thankfully there were a number of people, myself included, who posted comments pointing out that the vehicle itself probably had very few characteristics that denoted it exclusively as  a tool of National Socialism.  A BMW with a sidecar is just a cool bike, regardless of when it was made. I know for a fact that if I ever came across one at auction or on Kijiji, Audrey would be very likely to encourage me to purchase it.

I went on and posted a comment about how, although the Nazis were obviously deplorable, it is hard to deny that the German army of WWII was impeccably tailored, and another person replied with bemusement about how I emphasized my distaste for Naziism:

I thought the black licorice analogy was pretty good as well, but let's be clear: loving black licorice does not make me a Nazi.  And someone else in the thread backed up the 'best dressed army idea but saying, "Sure, Hugo Boss makes everyone look good, but you might want to stay away from his 1934 collection..."

In short, growing up listening to a fair amount of passive acceptance and casual tolerance of racist attitudes means I now feel obliged to state my feelings on the matter clearly and for the record. For instance, in my first year of college, two brothers on my floor of the freshman complex hung a Nazi battle flag in their window.  Most of us disregarded this stunt as a misguided and yokelish attempt to be provocative or edgy, but now I regret not having confronted them about it, and asking them what their own intent was.

Following on the heels of this online exchange, I was in conversation with a friend last night who, I wouldn't go so far as to say lamented, so lets say opined about how ironic it was that having grown up in Kentucky and lived in the US most of his life, and having attended more gun shows than he could count, he had to come to Calgary to see a Nazi table at a militaria show.

I was stunned and got Jim to explain: he was looking over the wares at a Militaria Show and Sale in Calgary a week or two back, and there was a table selling dolls or action figures that had been re-dressed in WWII German military uniforms.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this; it is a show devoted to military collectibles and replicas after all. But the two proprietors of this table were not your typical bookish, academically oriented, armchair general types, but rather two angry looking young white men with shaved heads and 'White Power' type t-shirts.

This was sufficient enough to get Jim's spider-sense tingling, so he approached someone involved with the event, bobbed his head in the direction of Ken and Barbie's Fourth Reich, and asked, "Ssssooo...what is all that about?"

This individual saw where Jim was looking, rolled their eyes and said, "Well, apparently how it works is: if you go over there to buy a figure and end up chatting the two of them up and they think you are a kindred spirit or whatever, they will slip some literature about their group into your bag under the table."

"They can do that?" Jim asked incredulously.

"If they aren't overtly breaking any rules, there isn't a lot we can do about it, really."

With Jim having just moved to Canada this summer, I found this tale disappointing on a number of levels, but Jim takes it in stride. "Look how far they've fallen," he says. "Their best option is to come to a gun show and troll with Nazi dolls, hoping to get a bite."

"Y'know, they marched not that long ago in Calgary; a year maybe two," I asserted, unwilling to concede their irrelevance.

"How many guys? More than 30? Wearing brownshirts and stuff?" he asked.

"No," I confessed, "I think maybe twenty, in leather jackets and Doc Martens and such. And there were probably two to three times as many counter protestors."

"Pfft," retorted Jim, "We have nothing to worry about here."

"I suppose so," I said, "But part of me is still upset that Canadians are too polite to take a couple of racist yolkheads like that out to the woodshed and make it immediately and physically apparent that they are not welcome."

Jim was unsure. "The last thing you want to do is give these guys more exposure, sympathy or a martyr angle," he cautioned.

"No," I said, "The last thing I want is to be the world's most ironic Canadian: charged under hate crime legislation for beating up on Nazis. That just feels like too much."

And yet, when I told the story at a dinner party last night, Totty said he wasn't so sure; there was just enough righteousness in there to potentially make the arrest worthwhile.

These test balloons come up periodically from the crypto-fascist or covert Nazi corner, periscopes that might do no initial harm, but which could potentially embolden a hateful u-boat beneath the surface.

Years ago at a Warhammer 40,000 tournament in Calgary, one competitor showed up with a tank-heavy Imperial Guard army painted up to resemble a WWII SS tank brigade. Since there was no specific prohibition against offensive insignia or suchlike in the rules, it became kind of a sticky wicket, that I think the marshall handled by having that player remove all the banners with their swastikas and runic lightning bolts and the like, and told him that army would not be welcome back next year. It also helped that this particular marshall was a physically solid ex-Canadian Army fellow with a deep and abiding interest in military history, and although a consummate professional, made made it crystal clear (CFB in military parlance) to this  individual that he was personally aggrieved by the display.

In the end, I think that 'discreet Nazis' isn't any sort of trending topic. Lean times make fertile ground for racist kooks, and scapegoating 'the other' among us has never gone out of style; look at the polarization in much of the political discourse in the U.S., with some candidates talking about building walls on both the southern and northern border of their land. Going to ground while quietly networking with others could be a cogent strategy for the ultraright, so keeping an eye on actual and wannabe Nazis might be a better use for our tabloids than ascribing National Socialist sympathies on celebrity collectors.

On the other hand though, Jim makes a cogent point, and how scared do I want to be of skinhead doll salesmen at the end of the day?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Jewel of Edmonton

We have had an additional resident in our garage for the past few months: a decent sized weaving spider of a type called the Edmonton Jewel.


Like most people, I find spiders fairly off putting. Too many legs, too many eyes, unsettling eating habits, etc. But knowing that they eat a lot of the insects I really detest like mosquitoes and occasionally wasps, I try to cut them a little slack when I can. Plus, you know, all that residual sadness from Charlotte's Web.


This one's abdomen is probably about the size of my thumbnail, and it has made a fairly substantial web structure around the garage window. It has somehow managed to avoid leaving any lines that impede my getting into the Flex in the morning, despite a proximity that sees me cringe when I remember it, usually at the last moment.


As the weather cools, I see our guest less and less, but as I pulled into the garage tonight after gassing up the car, there he was, pulling and organizing his (her?) lines by whatever arachnid orthogany their instinct dictates. So much work put into something that a strong gust of wind or an errant car door could almost completely demolish, and I don't believe spiders hibernate at any rate.


Still, I'm content to let the spider go about its business as I go about mine; winter will be here soon enough.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Mild Blue Yonder: Edmonton Air Show 2015

I've lamented my long absence from airshows for quite some time now; I blogged about it five years ago when a refurbished Corsair landed in Edmonton. The last airshow I attended would have been in Wetaskiwin in 2005, and even though it was kind of small-time, they did have the Snowbirds.

The Edmonton Airshow failed to garner a lot of my interest at first due to the lack of any military flying displays, either current or vintage, but as the day approached, its appeal steadily grew.  The flight demos scheduled were fairly tame, but there were WWII aircraft among the static displays.  Since I was due to drive Fenya to the south side of the city for an all-day driver's ed class anyhow, I asked Glory if she might be interested.

To my delighted surprise she said "Sure!", with no hesitation, which made the entire event just that much more palatable. She remembered nothing at all from the Wetaskiwin Airshow, having been only 3 years old at the time, and she was looking forward to the novelty of it, as well as a chance to get a little more practice with her camera.

After dropping Fenya off near Century park, we gassed up, grabbed a couple coffees at Starbucks and made our way west of the city to Villenueve.  We were likely to arrive early but I was unsure how big the crowd might be, so when we arrived at 9:40 and behind more than a hundred people waiting to pass through the gates when they opened at 10:00, I was glad we hadn't dilly dallied at all.

We hurried through the crowd and set our lawn chairs up right in front of the fence, close to center stage, and about ten yards shy of the taxiway where some of the aircraft would be rolling by, an air show first for me.

The mellow, family-oriented crowd meant we felt comfortable leaving our chairs and lunch by the fence, so we meandered over to the static display to check out the aircraft.

Two of my favourite WWII aircraft were on display, the P-51 Mustang and B-25 Mitchell bomber. Getting a chance to check out the 'Cadillac of the skies' up close and personal was a real treat.

There was an opportunity to climb inside the Mitchell, but between the lineup and the very real possibility of becoming stuck, I gave it a pass.  Gorgeous bird though, and representative of the model that flew with Doolittle's Raiders!

The warbirds will always be my favourites, new or old, but there were a few other neat things on the static line, including this homebuilt (!) 5/8 scale Hawker Hurricane:

A couple of really fast looking cars, and with one of them being RCMP, the chase scene practically writes itself:


And some very evocative (potentially provocative, I suppose) nose art:

The Civil Defense Corps (are they still around?), had a great display, with vehicles, tents, and some great old posters from the cold war days.

There was also a motocross demo with some X-Games style moxie presented by the FMX Demo Team, which gave Glory her first opportunity to work with some higher shutter speeds.

Looking at the pictures afterwards, I was pretty impressed that the spokes were actually discernible. It was at this point I pretty much put my own little point-and-shoot camera away. The stunts were impressive too, I should say!

We made our way back to the flight line and finished our sandwiches just in time for the aerobatics show.  There was a very impressive remote control flight display that was a little too far away to capture, and then the show proper opened with a few high speed passes and loops from a Czech jet trainer from the 1950s, the L-29. Glory got some of her best shots of the day here, and the light gleaming off the aluminum fuselage was absolutely gorgeous.

If I had to quibble, I would have to say that having three stunt bi-planes felt a little redundant.  AT the end of the day, there is only so much you can do with one of them, and I am not nearly knowledgeable enough about aerobatics to tell a good job from a great one, but the level of skill displayed was uniformly brilliant.  Stefan Trischuk was the first of the three and kept us all mesmerized with his precise maneuvers.

He was followed by the Harvard Formation Team who call themselves Yellow Thunder for the bright yellow hues associated with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. This program was the reason so many of these aircraft were seen here on the Canadian prairies during WWII, and they have been an airshow staple ever since,

To be honest, I wasn't really expecting that much from the Harvards (known as the T-6 Texan in the U.S.), having seen them an awful lot as a kid, usually shoehorned between the (at the time) more exciting military jets as well.  But hearing the mighty drone of those Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines as the two planes took off so close to us raised the hairs on my arms considerably, and I was in awe as they did their requisite loops and passes.

The next biplane performer was Bill Carter, who went inverted maybe a second after his gear left the ground, and started his routine with an outside loop from that position.

For a finale, he returned to inverted flight, and used his tail (fine, vertical stabilizer) to cut a ribbon held perhaps 20 feet off the ground; bold stuff!

I want to say this trainer is a T-6 Texan of a later vintage than the Harvards, but I don't recall any of them having three-bladed props.  Nifty paint scheme though, don't you think?

Brent Handy was the final biplane pilot, and put his craft through its paces just as you would expect from an ex-F-18 jockey and former Snowbird.

Nice shot kid; like a postcard! 

The last act we got to see before returning to Edmonton to pick up Fenya was the wing walker, Carol Pilon.  I think this was a first for me, and Glory got some great shots of her atop her Stearman biplane, from when they were taxiing to takeoff...

Through a high speed pass while hanging onto a wing strut...

And onto an inside loop with her on the top wing!

And a triumphant landing and massive applause from a massive crowd (25,000 over the two days, apparently).

It's a shame we couldn't watch the last performer,Pete McLeod in his Edge 540 Red Bull racing plane, which may have been the fastest thing I saw all day, including the jet, but it ended up taking us 45 minutes to escape the parking lot, even with an early departure. If we come back next year, maybe we will have time to wait around and let the crowd disperse.

We did take a little video, apologies for the focusing in places.

So, all in all, an excellent time at the first Edmonton Airshow in over a decade.  Apparently there are performers already lining up to be part of next year's event, so hopefully it will be even bigger and better. I know some people were underwhelmed by the lack of military aerobatics and more flashy aircraft, but you have to start someplace.  Personally, I would have loved to see the Snowbirds again, but at least Glory and I got to go on a brief helicopter ride...

Gosh, totally forgot to mention that, didn't I? Right after the static display, we went and took some pictures of the Bell Jet Ranger that they were giving rides on, and the crew were super friendly, with the pilot even offering to take our picture in front of the bird. "You can always tell people you went up..." he quipped.  

I asked how much and how long the flights were, and he said $60 for about 6 minutes. Glory and I walked away and talked about it, and decided we both wanted to do it.  We hit the porta-potties first and then hustled back before a line formed.  

It turned out you need 4 passengers to go up, but just as we were about to give my cell number and trudge off, a lady and her grandson came along wanting a ride.  Moments later, we were strapped in, headsets on, and then we were in the air. (And the three-year-old did really well once he got his headphones on!)

This was my first time ever in a helicopter, and as short a flight as it was, it was very gratifying being able to view the airshow grounds from such a height, especially looking at the lineup of cars to get in.

Glory got the front seat when one of the crew saw her big camera with the 200mm lens on it and gave her dibs, which I thought was very cool.  After landing, we got some kettle corn and she admitted her knees were still a little rubbery from being able to look between her feet and see hundreds of feet below the chopper's nose.

All in all, a wonderful way to spend a Saturday, but instead of scratching my airshow itch, the inflammation has spread, and now I'm already looking at bigger productions in Abbotsford and Oshkosh for 2016.  In fact, this year's Oshkosh show let attendees purchase rides on a B-17 bomber...Time to start doing some sit-ups, I reckon!