Sunday, March 26, 2023

The Fire This Time


On Wednesday night, I got to fulfill a childhood fantasy of saving my home with a fire extinguisher.

Fenya had questions about the cinnamon bun recipe she was using right from the get-go, and she clearly should have listened to her instincts. 

But like a trooper, she pressed on, not realizing that the sugary doughy mixture spilled over the confines of the tiny baking sheet she had used and on to the foil she had tried to line the element with and then created a small fire under the foil.

She yelled "fire!" and called for help, and I raced upstairs as quickly as a man with four to five large glasses of wine in him after supper could manage. The flames were small; three, perhaps four inches tall, so initially I tried to combat them with a spray bottle from under the bathroom sink. But Fenya saw that there were still flames under the foil so I grabbed a pair of tongs to shift the foil and combat them at their source. 

This turned out to be a grievous error in judgment on my part, as flames lept up past the stovetop, and Fenya shrieked, "please use the fire extinguisher!" Which I did.

Two and a half squirts of monoammonium phosphate later, the fire was out, and we finished opening all the windows and fanning the smoke detector until it stopped shrieking.

We all had a good laugh about it afterward, and I thanked her for making that time my bacon-wrapped scallops caught fire into such a trivial matter by comparison.


I should clarify that my reluctance to use the extinguisher was a product of fear or cheapness, the knowledge that the clean-up could be extensive, and that supposition turned out to be spot-on.

It turns out that all dry chemical extinguisher material should be cleaned up right away because they are caustic. And because their causticity can be due to them being either an acid or a base, you need to know what chemicals you are dealing with so you know the proper cleaning solution. 

Literally - the solution in our case was a mixture of baking soda and water, whereas a more acidic compound would have required mixing isopropyl alcohol and water. But then the baking soda residue needed to be rinsed or washed away. As a result, we ended up cleaning almost the entire kitchen, and thankfully vinegar water seemed to do the trick, despite being acidic.

Everyone pitched in, and while my reach let me get to the back of the wall behind the cupboards, Fenya's ability to stand on the counter was a valuable asset to get into the corner.

On the plus side, the kitchen hasn't been this clean since we moved in...well, until I used Audrey's gift basket from the Italian Centre to make dinner tonight.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

¡Muy Caliente! - Vernal Geekquinox 2023

Pete, an experienced kitchener who wears his boots desert-style, and Ellen, The Shortener of the Ways, held their first Geekquinox dinner as a married couple yesterday, and it was, as always, delightful.

Pete created an assortment of spicy (but tasty!) dishes, centered around the proverb from Frank Herbert's Dune, "the spice must flow."

We gathered earlier in the afternoon than usual and kicked things off with a delightful ancholoma cocktail. This brilliant libation combined spicy ancho reyes liqueur for heat, mezcal for smokiness and Grand Marnier to bring a beat of zesty fruit and cognac aromatics to the party, centered around an immense block of ice and topped with grapefruit juice. Probably not a great mimosa replacement for brunch but dang tasty and very popular, based on the number served over the day.

Next up we had a chance to sample six hot sauces from the popular web series "Hot Ones," in which celebrities answer questions while simultaneously eating increasingly spicy chicken wings. To preserve our appetites, we sampled them on tortilla chips accompanied by the most guacamole I have ever seen outside an industrial or catered setting.

I have never been one for confections or condiments that are "I dare you" hot, but tried all six. We all agreed that the second-last sauce, Da Bomb, felt the hottest while providing the least flavour, and most people preferred the Loc Calientes and Ginger Goat. Luckily a shot of creamy mango liqueur was on hand to rescue my palate afterwards - thank you Scott and Margaret!

After that we dove into some of Pete's rightfully famous chili verde, made with chicken this time instead of pork, but still tremendously flavourful and nourishing.

Then, the welcome return of the hamachi shot! This delicious sushi shot, featuring hydroponically grown shots, tuna, toasted ginger and ponzu sauce, made its debut a decade ago at Pete's first Star Trek Geekquinox, and has lost none of its appeal among his delighted guests.

But if it is 4:00, it must be time for another cocktail, this one coffee-based! A simple cup of joe transformed by a jigger of spiced rum and topped with a generous dollop of thick, rich, butterscotch-infused whip cream.

After some minor assembly assistance from Scott and I (and my trusty pineapple corer that I had brought at Pete's request), our host trundled off to the patio to grill up some al pastor pkr and pineapple skewers that were just astonishingly good. The smoky heat of the marinade was complemented perfectly by the zesty sweetness of the pineapple.

And the pineapple hull was put to good use as well - waste not, want not!

Pete had actually planned to follow this up with another chicken dish, but we talked him out of it since everyone was already pretty full, and visiting with him is more difficult when he is tethered to his many cooking devices. So the main course was a delicious bowl of aromatic black beans and Mexican street corn on the cob, slathered with a feta, sour cream and garlic/chili dressing!

We rounded out the evening with a scrumptious cayenne and chocolate custard, topped with leftover butterscotch whipped cream. Reminiscent of Mexican hot chocolate (or the many delightful items inspired by this Meso-American treat, such as the Heartstopper hot chocolate stout that Sherbrooke used to sell), this was the perfect capstone to a spicy (but not too spicy!) meal.

After that, there were a few more ancholomas, a few beers, lots of laughs, and some great conversation among the long-time friends who have gathered under Pete's Geekquinox banner since 2010 - and hopefully will do so for many years to come!

Monday, March 13, 2023

Oscars 2023 - Random Thoughts

It's been a long night because immediately following the Oscars telecast we cleaned up a few dishes and eight of us stayed up to watch the brilliant finale of The Last of Us.

* Jimmy Kimmel's monologue was fantastic, maybe the equal of some of the greats by Billy Crystal back in the day. And by my count, he limited himself to five jokes about last year's infamous 

* This Oscars may have raised the expectations for acceptance speeches; so many emotional and meaningful speeches (Ke Huy Quan nearly made me weep!) as well as what may be the most  widely-seen rendition of Happy Birthday ever. Too many good ones to list them all (I was also trying to keep track of all the winners on 16 ballots here).

* I was pulling for Everything EveryWhere All At Once, but was happy to see Naatu Naatu from Bollywood flick "RRR" take the statue, despite only having seen the song on YouTube for the first time this afternoon. The live dance version was clearly a crowd pleaser in the auditorium!

* Seeing Michelle Yeoh become the first Asian woman EVER take home the Best Actress Oscar for Everything Everywhere All At Once was only surpassed by having such a delightfully weird film take Best Picture (and 5 other Oscars too). 

* EEAAO winning means we can look forward to more boundary-pushing movies that challenge our ideas about sentiment expressed within a movie that embraces so many ideas that are unheard of by themselves with  mass public but old hat to those of us familiar with comic-books.

The 95th Oscars had heart and soul and technical merit, and I only took four shots for March of the Dead (Ray Liotta, who I knew but forgot, Irene Cara, Wolfgang Peterson and Vangelis).

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Slaying The Dragon is Not As Important As Choosing to Fight It In The First Place

About a year ago, Jeff asked if I wanted to join in his Thursday night D&D campaign with some other fellows I knew, even though I would be the only one not related to another player or the DM, which I found amusing. I agreed and rolled up a Paladin who was also a legitimate knight - Sir Gabriel Griffonheart. Thus began my association with Sword Coast Solutions, the name for our merry band. 

Yesterday we all got together to game in person for the first and last time in the campaign for a knock-down, drag-out tabletop session with real dice and miniatures in a basement, the way it was always intended, as Jeff's son quipped.

It was a great time, and through a stroke of luck, Sir Gabriel was able to deal the killing blow to Iymrith, the blue dragon who was the villain of the entire campaign. This was not due to good planning so much as sheer bloody-mindedness, and my reluctance to spend a turn healing when I could step up and keep rolling hit and praying to Tyr for a neutral 20 and a devastating smite.  It turned out our cleric had left the beast with only a single hit point, which he was quite devastated to discover.

But it wasn't my favourite moment.

That had come one encounter earlier, when one if Iymrith's spawn, Cyzuran the Hungry, stood before the entrance to her matron's lair. For our aid in uncovering the draconic conspiracy, we had all been given powerful magic potions that increased our stature to that of giants, with additional damage, reach, and twice as many hit points. Two of my comrades drank theirs immediately and suggested I do the same. 

"For sure I will," I said, but with my Boots of Speed and Charger skill, I can get in there right now and strike the first blow before the wyrm takes to the air."

"But then what?" they countered. "You aren't going to end the fight in one turn." And I was truly conflicted.

I looked at my sheet, then at the wonderful expanse of miniatures and scenery set before us and made my decision. 

"It is simpler than I thought," I said. "Sir Gabriel is a knight, and that is a dragon. And that's that."

And charged in.

Sir Gabriel got his licks in, but then got beat up pretty good, but the group prevailed.

And for a moment, I felt close to that Jeff Dee illustration in the old D&D Rogue's Gallery of a paladin, and let me tell you: it was pretty good.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Marvel Mystique or Marvel Mistake? Quantumania (and the MCU), Reviewed

Glory and I took in the new Marvel film, Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, on Tuesday. Despite it having the worst Rotten Tomatoes score of any recent Marvel Studios release, we still had a pretty good time. But it did raise some interesting questions about the future of the MCU and people's expectations for an increasingly immense franchise.

Quantumania is not the worst film the MCU has ever made (I would personally rank Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 as greater wastes of opportunity, but still wouldn't call them awful films), but it is a long way off from peak features like Captain America: Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It lacks both a real sense of coherence or a convincing notion of genuine stakes, and sometimes mixes its goofiness with its pathos.

But kudos for having such a frankly bizarre film swing so far in both directions in the first place! The first act of the film is probably the most enjoyable, with the extended Lang/Pym family (including Scott Lang's daughter Cassie) being sucked into the sub-atomic Quantum Realm by the villainous Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors). 

The initial explorations felt like familiar MCU characters like Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) and The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) being dropped into an episode of Rick & Morty. Hearing the acerbic senior Pym ruminating about how intelligent life in the Quantum Realm means re-evaluating biology, physics and evolution and then interrupting himself to interject, "holy shit, that guy looks like broccoli," was a delight. 

Things turn more serious when Kang shows up, the first real introduction of the MCU's "bid bad" to fill the overarching gap left by Thanos. Jonathan Majors largely eschews megalomaniacal scenery chewing in favour of quiet menace and a sense of multiversal weariness which could make him as fascinating and compelling a villain as Josh Brolin's. But such a shift in tone is difficult to maintain, making the earlier, goofier parts of the movie more enjoyable on the whole.

Some of the carping I just don't get though; I loved seeing an iteration of MODOK from the comics, because if you can't shoehorn a ludicrous character like this in via the Quantum Realm and all its weirdness, we will never, ever see him in the MCU.  But if you don't know about his provenance, he might seem needless or out of place.

Despite people going on about the bad box office (tbh: who cares? it's not like the tickets prices change! but as a measure of popularity I suppose it has weight), Wikipedia reports "the film made $46 million on its first day, including $17.5 million from Thursday previews that began at 3 P.M. It went on to debut to $106.1 million (and a total of $120.4 million over the four-day frame), marking the best opening of the Ant-Man series and the third-best for a February release, behind Black Panther ($242.1 million in 2018) and Deadpool ($152.1 million in 2016)." 

And while reviews are mixed, Quantumania is hardly being panned (although it deserves to be ranked lower than both of its predecessors.) I suspect some of these metacritics may be the same people saying "mark my words, Marvel is going to lose their shirt trying to sell a movie about a walking tree and talking raccoon in space" just prior to Guardians of the Galaxy becoming a bona fide smash.

I have heard people complaining about the CGI, something Marvel has a reputation for rushing on, but honestly, unless they are so egregiously bad that it pulls me out of the film, I am not concerned with weird biological spaceships or broccoli-headed dudes looking particularly photorealistic - because I know they aren't real. I am seeing these movies first and foremost as a comics fan, still amazed that second and third-tier characters like these are getting greenlit for major cinematic releases, based largely on the strength of the universe grown out of two dozen films and umpteen streaming series underpinning them.

But even some of the fan criticisms have credence, like the idea of "if I am watching a film about an adventuring family being pulled into another dimension and facing an implacable foe in a psychedelic environment, why the hell is that family the Lang/Pyms and not the Fantastic Four?"

It seems a lot of people have begun to drift away from the MCU, and some of the reasons they give are easy to understand: 

  • there is no time left to anticipate MCU films any more, with 3-4 movies a year and as many series and Special Presentations on Disney+
  • plus the mythology and canon is getting top-heavy from the number of releases and making the connections feel less like a treat and more like a burden
  • "superhero fatigue" setting in with other comics properties entering the fray and now anti-hero or irony-driven shows like The Boys or Invincible gaining ground in the public consciousness
  • Phase 4, the films following Avengers: Endgame, have all felt smaller and less joyful than the foundational MCU films

And that last point is probably the most fair: how the heaven's name can anyone be expected to stick the landing the way Kevin Feige and Co. did with that first glorious run, and then just pick up and carry on from there?

So I kind of get it, and I think Marvel is hearing some of this too, with reports now coming that they intend to slow down their release schedule and perhaps pare back some projects. Because the more recent projects have felt diminished, and I think taking more time and care can only help mitigate that.

But the other reason they have felt diminished is because the subject matter is simply not as legendary as it once was. Leading off the creation of what would become the MCU with a second-tier property like Iron Man was a brilliant move that let the filmmakers and studio set the tone and interconnectivity at their own pace, so they could bring more well-known and larger-than-life figures like Captain America, Thor and eventually flagship character Spider-Man into the picture. 

And frankly, after so many films scoring 8+, every 6 is going to feel a bit like a failure, isn't it?

In a post-Endgame world, where many of the franchises are trying to pass the torch from legacy characters like Captain America and Iron Man to newcomers like The Falcon and Ironheart, the transitions are even more difficult onscreen than they are in the comics that inspired them. And this places even more pressure on lesser-known and but well-established characters like Ant-Man to carry an increasingly immense MCU narrative forward.

So I have reconciled myself to the fact that I am unlikely to ever experience anything like Avengers: Endgame ever again. And I am okay with that! It was miraculous enough I got to experience it at all, and more movie franchises should aspire to stick the landing so well as that film did.

And I suspect that at some point down the line, maybe sooner, maybe later, the MCU will take a hard look at rebooting the whole thingamamajig and recast all the Phase 1 characters and take another swing at, well, everything - but do it differently too. Maybe let Hydra be the villain in more that one or two flicks this time around, I dunno.

But in the meantime, I am still going to look forward to seeing comic book adaptations like Quantumania, because even if they don't transcend the source material the way some of the earlier films did, it is still great to see these sometimes goofy characters dealing with absurd situations in almost unimaginable locales like the Quantum Realm. And part of that is because of the sheer joy I take just in seeing the words and images of comic books re-presented on the big screen.

Remember, it was not that long ago that David Hasselhoff playing Nick Fury in a tv movie was about all we comic fans could hope for. Actually, 1998 was pretty long ago after all I suppose... but my point is not that we should just lower our expectations or standards for the current iteration of the MCU, but to recall those times when just an offhand reference to Metropolis by Val Kilmer in 1995's Batman Forever was enough to set fans excitedly speculating. "What it might be like to have two major comic characters in a single movie?" - unimaginable at the time!

Anyhow, depending where your interests or degree of fandom lies, I believe Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania is worth seeing if:

  • you like the idea of seeing MCU characters in a Rick & Morty-type setting, or
  • you still find high-concept comic hijinks enjoyable, or
  • you want to see Jonathan Majors play a different type of MCU villain, or
  • you want to keep up with things because you know another Avengers movie is coming, or
  • you just want an interdimensional adventure movie with some neat weird ideas and a few laughs in it.

In the end, going on a Tuesday instead of opening weekend suited Glory and I just fine in terms of money spent to entertainment gained, and we are already stoked for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in May.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Total Immersion or Just All Wet? Avatar: The Way of Water, Reviewed

How strange to see yet another long-gestating sequel less than 12 months after watching Top Gun: Maverick! I mean, Avatar: The Way of Water barely compares in terms of elapsed time (three-and-a-half decades vs just over one) but the latter spent a lot of that time in production, so the anticipation for some folks might have been even more pronounced. 

Strangely, that anticipation was not increased for me, despite enjoying the first film quite a bit (in spite of its many flaws); we had talked about seeing it over Christmas but never got around to it. And honestly, the three-hour-plus runtime made weekday viewings impossible afterwards, but we had a window to see it Sunday afternoon, over two months since its release, and we took it - mostly so its four Oscar nominations could bring our "seen it" total to 55.

So although the plot is a big improvement over the simplistic original, some of its other problems remain: both the "noble savage" and the "mighty whitey" tropes are in full display, although the latter is perhaps a bit more subdued now. Writer/director James Cameron has maintained the "fish out of water" angle by having former earth marine and current Na'Vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and their four children flee their forest home after the Sky People (earth folks) return. The threat of losing their children to the newly recombinated and incredibly vengeful Col. Quaritch (Steven Lang), now in his own Na'Vi body is just too much.

And the retread itself is not problematic, but when you see the amount of cultural appropriation in the depiction of the Matkayina clan (or reef people), it is difficult to see why the filmmakers did not foresee this as a problem. It is one thing to have a hunter give thanks to an earth-spirit of mother nature figure after making a kill like we saw in 2009's Avatar, but there are whole pages torn from South Pacific islander culture here. From the facial tattoos to the weapons to some of the names to the tongues stuck out in defiance just prior to going into battle, there were so many Maori callouts I was astonished they didn't try to shoehorn a re-named haka in there someplace.

But as unfortunate as that was, I have to say that, overall, we all enjoyed the film. (Sigh.) And it is all due to a visionary filmmaker being allowed to pursue his passions.

In addition to being a good writer and great director (YMMV), Cameron is a committed diver and underwater enthusiast who also uses his fame and money to highlight ecological causes. He is a man with a deep-seated and obvious love for his homeworld, in particular the enormous portion of it that lies beneath the waves. In The Way of Water, he gets to idealize an unspoiled aquatic paradise, populate it with all manner of fascinating creatures (only some of which are essentially analogs to existing earth fauna), and then introduce them to the Sullys, and thus, to us.

The visuals of the movie are simply spectacular, with little to none of the uncanny valley effect that seems to still plague so many digitally generated characters, particularly when jumping or falling, or when interacting with flesh and blood actors. If I was a harsher critic, I might say it is a shame that Cameron had to ruin his brilliant travelogue by throwing a brutal revenge plot in there at all, (and if he ever makes his Pandora travelogue, you can sell me an IMAX 3D ticket to it right now, thank you).

But the truth is that Steven Lang is a great character actor and fantastic villain, and I was so happy to have him back in the story that it almost made up for watching him threaten children in practically every. Scene. He is in.

The action sequences are clear, well-executed, and intensely dramatic in places - Cameron has lost none of his edge in the intervening decade! And his child characters dwell pretty consistently in that grey area of bright, brave and curious offspring who are neither boat anchors nor saviours.

There is also no mention of the miracle mineral unobtanium this time around - there is an even more valuable prize to be found in the seas that Clan Sully hope to call home, and even if there wasn't, it turns out that the Sky People (us, basically) have used up their own home now and are anxious to resettle on Pandora, with the marines (and Col. Quarritch's Blue Team) here to literally pave the way.

As a result of this, Avatar: The Way of Water does not conclude as tidily as the original, but with three more sequels on the way, we suspected this going in, right?

In the end, my enjoyment and appreciation of this flawed but amazing piece of moviemaking stems from the same place as it did in 2009: a movie that not only takes me away from my own reality for three hours as a form of escapism, but which depicts another world with such immense detail and applied immersion that I honestly come away with the sensation of having been elsewhere.

Or, at the very least, having imagined that I have, aided by tremendous visuals, an engaging story and the most effective use of 3D since, well, 2009.

If you liked the first film at all, you owe it to yourself to see it on a big screen and despite the fact I normally forego the 3D presentation, I highly recommend that as well.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Presenting the Complex

 Audrey recently finished watching the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, which has the same showrunner as our current infatuation The Last of Us. It is absolutely brilliant television, dramatically recreating one of the world's greatest industrial tragedies and the heroic efforts needed to undo a situation created by greed, ambition and secrecy.

But one of the highlights for me was the show trial at the end. The trial was a political requirement so the Soviet people (and to a lesser degree, the rest of the world) could rest assured that the culpable parties were punished, and thus, repetition of the accident practically impossible.

During the trial, atomic scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) must explain the accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant #4 in such a way that the military, judicial and political judges understand it. Conveniently, this means he must also explain it in a manner so that the viewers (like myself) can also understand it. 

Legasov must do this without 3D computer animation (as there was no such thing in 1987) or any other technological crutches. That he manages to do so with a simple set of red and blue placards and a display board was absolutely spellbinding to me.

A reactor does two things, he explains: it increases reactivity (the red cards) and decreases reactivity (the blue cards). Uranium atoms begin splitting (red) but then boron control rods dampen the reaction (blue). He takes us through a normal set of reactions and controls and the resulting generation of electrical power, demonstrating the complex balancing act keeping everything in check. 

He then recreates the accident, which saw power levels lowered, which then created a series of effects that removed a number of red cards and left far more blue cards on the display, reflecting the foundering of the reactor and explaining the loss of power production. But he breaks it down in such a way that when an improper action is taken, even a liberal arts graduate like myself can not only understand but actually anticipate what is going to happen. 

In a series full of dramatic and human moments, this technical presentation felt like the highwater mark to me (and not just to me, but to this energy litigator who outlines it far better than I do in this LinkedIn article).

I think part of why it resonated with me so deeply is because I work in pensions.

No, seriously - hear me out. 

Pensions, particularly defined benefit pension plans like the ones I work with, are not only complex but also highly counter intuitive. There is no direct correlation between the amount of money a person (and their employer) contributes and the monthly pension they eventually draw from the plan. I mean, there is an indirect linkage, sure, as those contributions are a percentage of their pay, but even those rates can go up and down over time.

But the actual pension is derived from a formula and the only two variables in that basic formula are how long did you work (pensionable service) and what were your five highest earning years taken as an average (highest average salary). 

The other thing about pensions is that you can end up talking to plan members with an incredible range of both education and understanding; you could speak to the Chief Financial Officer of a major metropolitan hospital on one call, and then to the person who empties their wastebaskets. And ironically, the custodial person might have a better understanding of their pension, as it represents the majority of their retirement income, and they may have educated themselves out of a sense of necessity.

But people from all walks of life end up calling in, many of them making incorrect assumptions that their pensions are similar to other financial products, or are bound by rules they have heard around the water cooler. And sometimes folks have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fundamental basis of pensions, like the fact they are a lifetime benefit that does not run out or exhausted. I shared this example with my coworkers last week:

I had kind of a breakthrough during one of those familiar conversations about "why can't I see my employer's contributions on my statement?" I had explained that these cons are not used in any calcs, but employee cons with interest are shown because a CV [commuted value]-based payout cannot be any lower than that.

He wasn't really interested in the CV though - he kept coming back to "but if employer cons aren't used, why should the employer even pay anything?"
[At this point it is clear to me he doesn't understand the key principle of the lifetime benefit.]

I said, "let's try a different tack - let's say you quit on Jan 1 of 2022, the day after the info on the statement we are looking at. See how you have a base pension of $500 a month? Imagine you get to age 65 and start receiving that - it's about $6,000 a year, right?

"Well, after 7 yrs, you will already have earned more from the pension than your $39K in cons, right? And 7 years after that, more than your employer's cons as well, and you will still only be 79..."

And he goes, "ah, I get it!"

Probably the most satisfactory moment I have had on the phone all year!

It was a great reminder to me of how important it is to sometimes forget what you know, and try to see things from an outside perspective; something the writers of Chernobyl clearly understood. 

Too bad I can't use coloured cards on the telephone.