Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in review

2010, wow, what a year. I can't help thinking that now we not only missed the first Jupiter mission, but the second Jupiter mission as well, and those alien monoliths must be getting awful lonely out there in the blackness of space. Anyway, things to cover...

Personal life:
- Starting on a sad note, by beloved great-aunt Klara Boguslavskaia passed away this summer. I miss you and love you and will never stop thinking about you.
- Got another diploma to put on the wall with the others. This time it's a teaching certification and a B.Ed. diploma. Let's home it'll turn out more useful than the others.
- Speaking of teaching, I started volunteering at a school in the hopes of getting a job there eventually. I love it, I hope it'll work out.
- I got paid for writing something! WOW! THAT IS JUST SO AWESOME! No, really, regardless of what the amount was, just the rush of actually getting paid to do something I love... Better than sex. :)
- Went to Russia this year with my sister. It was a terrific trip despite the awfulness we ran into with our flights there and back. It was great to meet up with so many old friends and see familiar faces. I wish all of them happy New Year's and to prosper in 2011 despite all the troubles my motherland is having right now.
- Finally quit BestBuy - that felt great. Unfortunately I then went and got my other old job back (of the data entry variety) out of desperation. Depressing, but there it is.

Games of 2010
- Civilization V came out this year. I had some big expectations, unfortunately they were not entirely met. It's a fun game, but definitely dumbed down.
- Assassin's Creed 2 was a fantastic game and an improvement on the original in every way. I already picked up Assassin's Creed 2 Brotherhood and can't wait to try it out.
- Starcraft 2 finally came out after like 15 years! Single player is fantastic, multiplayer is just as chaotic and full of rush as always.
- Fallout: New Vegas came out and blew me away despite somewhat low expectations. Even though it was buggy as hell at launch, the gameplay changes, the less-linear storyline, and the Nevada setting are all much more reminiscent of the classic Fallout 1 and 2. Highly enjoyable.
- Red Dead Redemption is an amazing game, and one of the few games which I would put forth as transcending video games and approaching art. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the scenery, the mood... Just simply amazing.
- Recettear is a tiny little game, easily missed, and for me it was a sleeper hit of 2010. Running a store in a fantasy RPG universe has never been more fun.

I bought/borrowed a lot of books this year, too many to cover all of them, but these were the more memorable ones:
- Fuller's Memorandum by Charles Stross continues the excellent Laundry series. It's definitely moving away from dark comedy and moving towards full-blown horror, and it's one hell of a ride.
- Naomi Klein's "No Logo" and "Shock Doctrine" blew me away. Even though I disagree with the author on many points, they are nonetheless angry, poignant, and thought-provoking books.
- Same as Klein, Gwynn Dyer's new book "Climate Wars" is very thought-provoking as well and a fun non-fiction read.
- Ray Kurzweil's "Singularity is near" was a heavy, but interesting read. Again, I disagree with the author on many points, but he does paint an interesting view of the future different from the predominantly distopian view we've been getting from both fiction and media (is there a difference nowadays?) in the last few years.
- Freakonomics was a very fun non-fiction read as well.
- China Mieville had two books out this year (ok, one, but the other one came out very late last year, so I'm counting it): "The City and the City" and "Kraken". Not sure if I like the former all that much, but it was a very dense text and he does some wonderfully interesting stuff with language. The latter on the other hand is a very zany occult romp that in my opinion surpasses most of Neil Gaiman's stuff, even if superficially it shares many elements with a typical Gaiman novel.
- I also finally started reading Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" books. They're fun little diversions, and definitely written for my geekdom demographic.

Movies of 2010:
Just as with books, I've seen way too many movies this year. These are the best (or the most fun, or both) movies of this year in my not-so-humble opinion:
- Inception in my opinion is the movie of the year. It's not a fucking remake movie for once (getting sick of those), and I'm pretty sure everyone's already aware of how awesome it is.
- The Town was a sleeper hit, I didn't expect much of Ben Affleck and yet he totally pulled through as a director and actor and crafted a very thoughtful, tense, and well-directed crime noir movie. Definitely worth a watch.
- Leaves of Grass is possible the best non-foreign movie of 2010 that no one has seen. It stars Edward Norton as two twin brothers. It's a lovely, thoughtful, almost tender movie (even if a few people get shot... with a crossbow), and I've already watched it several times.
- Robin Hood. Y'know what? It's the same story with this movie as with Kingdom of Heaven. The director's cut really transforms it far above and beyond a summer blockbuster it was billed as. I highly recommend watching the director's version.
- Terribly Happy is my second favourite foreign movie of 2010. It's a darkly funny crime noir tale set in a small isolated town in Denmark. Very good movie.
- Wolfman is a remake of a remake, but for all that it succeeds at what's important - preserving the atmosphere and the feeling of dread. Yes we know the main hero will turn into a werewolf, but that's really beside the point. Fine acting by Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro both.
- Shutter Island is a screen version of a graphic novel (a first for Scorcese) and the plot is rather obvious, but along with Inception it really shows how almost frighteningly good of an actor Leonardo di Caprio really is.
- Secret of Kells is a fairly short movie (less than 90 minutes), it is animated, it's Irish, and... you know what? It's spellbinding! I am willing to sit and watch it purely for the visuals and the music, and yet it is so much more.
- This movie has such intense acting and atmosphere I don't think I relaxed once watching it. The second time through I still couldn't relax. It's just that good at what it does. Just as good as the book.
- The A-Team. OK. I know. But I had to put at least one mindless summer flick on this list and this is the best of the lot. It's a good remake, a good tribute, and despite an overall crappy plot and some crappy special effects, it's very very fun. With surprisingly good actors (not just Liam Neeson), well-written dialogue that's genuinely funny, it delivered (unlike the Expendables, which I saw back to back with this movie).
- Wall Street 2 was a tad too long and ends on a feel-good note, but as far as long-delayed sequels go, it's very good and gives Michael Douglas another shot to show to use how fine of an actor he's always been.
- R.E.D. is - like A-Team - another mindless action movie. Like the A-Team, however, its lovable characters, tight and funny dialogue, and non-stop action carry it beyond a boring action movie it could have been. Doesn't hurt that the great actors starring in it have real chemistry.
- A Small Act is a documentary about a man trying to find an identity of a woman he's never met, but one that has given him the gift of a fulfilling life. It is an amazing and moving story.
- Centurion was another sleeper hit for me. Billed as mindless historical action flick (like Robin Hood above), it is actually much more. Yes, the violence is savage, but it is not needlessly drawn out or overwrought (300 I'm looking at you), and it provides a social commentary on Iraq as well.
- Machete might just be the most politically charged and no-holds-barred movie of 2010, and the most honest look at the immigration issue in the United States. Oh, and it's a grindhouse flick directed by Robert Rodriguez starring barely anyone the mass public would recognize, with gratuitous violence and pornography. Go figure. So so so good.
- Buried was a movie that initially made me go "huh?!" It stars Ryan Reynolds, alone on the screen, buried in a box with a cellphone. It is such a terrific political thriller, I cannot help recommending it. I'm not sure I'd watch it again knowing the twist and the resolution already, but it's definitely worth a watch.

Well, that's all for now, and happy 2011 folks!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Business School

Little round pegs
Listen to big round pegs
And learn thing such as:
Customer care
Total quality management
ISO compliance
Minimizing liability
Maximizing shareholder profits
Protecting intellectual property
Not realizing that
The hole is a square.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"We have awoken a giant and filled it with terrible resolve"

The actions of the Russian government seem determined to eliminate any and all moderates and polarize society along ethnic and cultural lines. Putin's regime seems curiously helpless to put down any demonstrations or protests that elsewhere would be deemed extremist and fascist, while at the same time slamming down on any sort of democratic/moderate/liberal opposition protests that are tiny compared to ultranationalist outbursts. Worst of all, as an outside observer, it seems that it is the government itself that seems to both create and nurture the "us vs. them" to divide in the Russian society, not realizing what kind of powder keg they're sitting on and lighting a fuse to.

Meanwhile the actions of the police and other 'force' structures (silovyie struktury) are so eerily reminiscent of the tsarist police during its last few years (what I wrote my M.A. thesis on) that I get goosebumps reading the current news. It is entirely likely that Putin is trying to shore up his political power in the same fashion that the Tsars tried to do almost a hundred years ago, and it is entirely likely that the results will be the same.

The was a kind of jubilation, or at the very least hopeful expectation that the Russian people (and other nationalities as well) had throughout the 80s and 90s. Even in the worst parts of the 90s when the communists were seemingly on the verge of a democratic victory there was no strong and convincing rhetoric of "us vs. them" or abandonment of democratic principles in favour of economic stability (beyond grumblings and demonstrations by increasingly politically-irrelevant old people) which is basically Putin's platform. What the 90s created, however, was a large and powerful junta (I can find no better word that conveys illegality of what they had done - oligarchy sounds too 'legitimate' for my taste) that was able to use Yeltzin's impending retirement and physical and mental disability to push through a candidate that will guarantee the kind of regime they needed to survive and prosper.

By 2000 the kind of Russian people who were necessary for real democracy either emigrated or were economically desperate enough to believe that Putin did not necessarily mean the end of democracy. Here's how demography worked against democracy - at the height of emigration, Russia was losing more than half a million people a year to emigration. Those were the people with the: a) skills, b) money, c) work ethic, d) desire to make things better for their family. In other words - the middle class. By late 90s the middle-class was diminished and impoverished both economically and morally. The middle-class that slowly grew up under Putin now tend to associate their prosperity with Putin and economic stability at the price of democracy, however, now it seems like they're starting to wake up.

An average modern Russian (according to polls) associates poverty with democracy, Russia's apparent "weakness" on the global stage with an American conspiracy, crime with "blacks" (by which Russians mean anyone from Caucases or Central Asia - chornyie, the Russian word for people of African descent is different), wealth with corruption, police with legal crime, politicians with liars and puppets of the rich elite, and so on. Fortunately there is some indication that the grassroots organizations that connect seriously pissed-off Russians (whether on environmental issues, taxation, etc.) are becoming more effective. Unfortunately these organizations either deal with purely economic or non-political issues (that could be a good sign if South American democratic movements of 70s/80s are any indication. Most of the successful anti-fascist/anti-junta South American movements grew out of religious, economic, and even sport-based organizations) or much worse - with ethnic issues (in which case they become ultranationalistic or even openly nazi organizations).

For example, the most recent wave of violent protests in Moscow and st. Petersburg started out as a huge violent riot of soccer fans who were protesting the shooting of a "Spartak" fan club member whose murderers were set free by the corrupt police, and has turned into an anti-government/anti-immigration riot that the gov't is content not to stop in any way.

A cogent and powerful argument can be made that the reason why every openly democratic-liberal party/faction has failed in Russia is that all the really successful parties/factions have traditionally stressed nationalism and paternalism, whether populist or not, and that it is a sign that Russian people are either incapable of, or not yet ready for, real democracy. Now I personally would not entirely agree with such an argument, but it has been made and it has been made well.

Do the radicals stand a chance to win in the Duma however? Thanks to Putin and co. the Russian political system is very effectively rigged to prevent a real opposition. However, an even greater consequence of this is that the radicals are no longer interested in using democratic means to gain power, as they realize (quite rightly) that doing so is pointless! Even before the recession, the radicals (of either stripe - left, right, or pro-gov't) have taken to the streets and have often used street violence to make their point. Ultra-radical nationalists kill journalists, liberal opposition members, immigrants, foreign nationals. Ultra-radical left-wingers have taken to vandalizing gov't offices, attacking members of openly fascist/ultra-nationalist/nazi parties, and attacking police (try to find some news about anti-police gangs in the Russian Far East - not sure how much coverage they got in the English-speaking media). Ultra-radical pro-gov't faction is content to let the police contain and disperse the other two factions and then attack them without any repercussions or danger.

There is a Russian word (really a Polish word that was borrowed) - 'Bydlo'. It used to mean herd of cattle, then it also started to mean serfs, specifically referring to docile dumb peasant serfs. Putin and co. have been treating Russian citizens like 'Bydlo' for the last decade - considering incapable of rational or independent thought, willing to be led around as long as they are fed. Well the cattle is waking up, and the idiots in charge are too busy stealing to read history textbooks and realize that every time the mob of Russian people wake it is never merciful to its one-time shepherds.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Information wants to be free

Exposure of government crimes should not be a crime. I expect right-wing loonies in the U.S. to call for treason charges and even death penalty for Julian Assange (nevermind that he's not a U.S. citizen). But when CANADIAN government officials are suggesting charges of treason and other charges, that's when we know that there IS problem with our system of governance, and that Assange is doing the right thing! If we do not hold our governments accountable, then they WILL become like Taliban or North Korea, but they'll be controlled by corporate interests or whatnot, instead of loonie Communist dictators or fundamentalists.What Wikileaks is doing is exposing government secrets that SHOULD be exposed. People in democratic states are entitled to the right to know what their ELECTED government is doing. Governments trying to go after Wikileaks demonstrate the unwillingness of our gov'ts to give us that right, therefore exposing them to be non-democratic regimes.

If it does not require the likes of the Wikileaks then why are governments trying to shut it down? Why is actually so hard to hold our governments accountable? Why does it take whistleblowers to show us what our governments really up to? I think Wikileaks actually fulfills a public service. how can people make informed choices about what the state is doing, and whether it's acceptable, if they don't have free access to said information? And what are we to make of the persistent muzzling of the media (one of the very watchdogs you're talking about) by democratic governments? Why is it that the media has to rely on the findings of these 'dilettantes' rather than the other way around? Why are Wikileaks and similar sources publishing information that our so-called free press does not? Governments must be held accountable to their people, and free access to information about the governments' activities is the first step in this accountability.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing an RPG product

Due to a stringent non-disclosure agreement I'm not exactly allowed to state outright the project I'm working on, but it's a small freelance writing project for a major RPG company. And oh yeah - it's a paying gig! How crazy is that! Unlike something vague and ambiguous ("Write a book on faction A or race B or optional rules C, and do whatever), this project actually has rather specific guidelines, goals, and deadline. Deadline I'm mostly OK with (actually I hit all the deadlines on this project - I'm rather proud of myself, as I took extra four months past the deadline to hand in my M.A. thesis.) I was, however, surprised by the challenge that even a project of this relatively small size became. What I initially thought would take a couple of evenings, and a couple of hours to clean up, actually took almost a whole week (well, evenings thereof anyway) and several drafts before I felt confident that it would be up to par. Even if it doesn't end up being published or ends up getting disassembled in the editing process I'm still proud of having worked on it and grateful for learning a new thing or two about writing an RPG product.

I think it's a truism that nearly every somewhat serious RPG player or Game Master will at some point or another attempt to write an RPG product, whether for personal enjoyment (or enjoyment with friends and fellow players) or in an attempt to break into the industry. There is a writer's streak in all of us RPG geeks, and it is a streak that is rarely fully quenched (see what I did there? I didn't just mix my metaphors, I forced them to copulate against the laws of nature to produce an altogether unwholesome and blasphemous offspring). Many of RPG players I know write 'into the table' to borrow a Russian expression. They write backgrounds for characters that they will only play for a session, or never at all. They write campaign and adventure ideas that they will never run. (Hands up those of you guilty of this? I recently checked my RPG document folders, including my backup disks from as far away as 1998-00, and I have well over 300 individual files directly pertaining to RPGs). They write up characters, complex plots, cosmologies, religions, most of which will never see the light of day (in an active playing session that is), confined to their head. However, even having indulged in all of the above for more than 12 years now, it is still different writing something that is meant to actually see the light of day, to be read and used by complete strangers, to be stamped with a publishing company's seal of approval. As I've said - it was quite a challenge and a learning experience. I look forward to when I can talk more openly about the product and the creative process behind it.

P.S. As an aside on the malady of "Writing way too much stuff for a silly game", the total word count of the material I've written for my Rogue Trader game and the wiki (oh yes, there is a wiki I've created for my campaign, it's a labour of perverse love as I happen to know that most of the players in the goddamn campaign don't even read the wiki - is now bigger than the final draft of my M.A. thesis. It's well over 25000 words now, and over 90 pages single spaced. As I've posted on Facebook previously, I don't know whether to be proud or sad...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween party!

Nerds throw the best Halloween parties ever. :) Great music, awesome costumes beyond your standard vanilla fare, round after round of free drinks (thanks creepy kimono dude whose character I don't recognize!). Some very awesome costumes this year at the Comic Book Shoppe's annual Heroes and Villains Halloween party. Less anime than last year, more Justice League and steampunk. Costumes I can recall:
- the purple-haired girl from Scott Pilgrim
- Terminator (the T2 Arnie model, and a very hot chick doing the one from T3). The Terminator dude had awesome costume, was crazy tall and DJ'd to boot!
- Dark Phoenix (very hot costume, won third place I think?)
- Parallax
- Gumbo (another awesome costume)
- A couple of Marios, added bonus - one of them was a little person, a Princess Peach, and a Goombah.
- At least four Green Lanterns, but one of them may have been a cunning impression of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory doing a Green Lantern
- Speaking of Sheldon - the Doppler Effect Sheldon costume was awesome!
- Van Helsing (the Hugh Jackson version, not Anthony Hopkins version)
- A couple of Inuyasha characters I don't know the names of
- Batman crew was out in full force: two Batmans, two Catwomen (one was Michelle Pfeiffer - very cool costume, the other was 1950s Catwoman done by Shawna, also very cool costume), very hot Poison ivy, at least three Robins, one Joker (a girl doing the costume though), Penguin.
- A Superman, a Clark Kent reporter version, awesome Captain America version, a She-Hulk, Wonder Woman, I think a couple other DC characters.
- Wolverine, awesome Deadpool costume, Cyclops, Blade (very good costume, dude even had his hair cut and pattern-shaved like the character).
- One of the Ghostbusters, with a cool pack and the laser beam weapon capturing thingie that both lit up and had sounds and stuff.
- Randomly: Xena, Thor, band member of Dethklok, Jack Sparrow, a couple of ninjas, an Old Republic Storm trooper commando, and lots more.
- The prize for first place though went (very deservedly) to awesome Spy vs. Spy pair who had awesome costumes, props, and did skits. Very cool!

Blogger won't let me post images, so check my Facepage if you're on my friends list!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reality is stranger than fiction

Sheesh, who thought this whole "World War 2" story arc would be a great idea? They started out with a bang - this whole Napoleonic thing, lots of dashing actions, fairly believable characters (a typically megalomaniac yet lovable dictator who is also AWESOME at everything notwithstanding). That was cool. Then they switched gears to a whole different continent and did "Civil War". Still lots of dashing action, they even did an episode or two set in the Wild West, good mix of romance, war, politics, and humour (they even slotted in Mark Twain! That's badass!), and the characters were more believable too. The action scenes were kinda monotonous though, Gettysburg and Antietam episodes plainly used much of the same footage for instance. But whatever, I enjoyed it so I kept watching the show. Then they dropped The Great War season on us! That was the highlight of the show for me - shit got so grim and dark (grimdark even!), and there was tons of stuff going on, and lots of famous people making cameos, and it was just over the top in general. The battle scenes of Verdun, or Vimy Ridge, or Somme, or Brusilov's Breakthrough were epic! The filmmakers used the gritty grainy effects combined with shaky cam to great effect actually. I felt they reused the sets of trench life and warfare too often, but the sets of life in the rear were refreshing. The ending was kinda meh, the authors wrote themselves into the corner with the whole positional trench warfare thingie, and they already used the 'gas' gimmick in the earlier episodes. The Russian Revolution and Civil War was a pretty clever way to bring the season to a close, but come on! Everyone must've seen it coming a mile away! World War 2 on the other hand was the most disappointing season yet (I'm still waiting to see how the whole Middle East season gets resolved, it's really dragging and I feel like they should just cancel the show). I pretty much agree with everything the guy in the blog I linked says: characters are very one-dimensional, super-weapon macguffin to resolve the season's plot is much less clever plot device than the Great War ending, the bad guys are Bad with a capital 'B' and seem to do EVILEVILEVIL all the time just for the LOLs, and come on - the entire plot is basically a rehash of the previous season with some new characters, nicer sets, better special effects (I have to give them credit - the special effects in this season are way better than Great War season), and more action. It's like they got Joss Whedon and J. J. Abrams to write the script, but didn't allow them to put in any lipstick lesbians or 'oooooooooh mysterious monsters scary!!!'. Epic fail!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Private school frenzy

Toronto Private School Expo was an interesting experience to say the least. Probably the most interesting aspect of it were the attendees, the vast majority of whom were parents or parents-to-be. Strollers were dominating the convention floor of Ron Thompson Hall despite the abundance of five-step stairs and lack of easily accessible ramps. The strollers were dominated by offsprings of anywhere between 6 months and 3 years - so this is a clear indication of how early some parents (call them responsible, well-prepared, obsessive, or worry-wort) start worrying about their children's education. Children of older ages were surprisingly few and far between, majority of parents there I guess weren't interested in considering their spawns' input on the choice of schools. The facial expressions of the parents betrayed a mix of desperation (how hard is this school to get into? How do I choose a school? How do I pay for it? Will it be good for my son/daughter? What do I do if I can't get my child into this school/afford to pay for it?), incredulity (38 thousand a YEAR? The uniforms cost HOW MUCH?), weariness (jeez that's a lot of private schools), and hope. Not quite as heart-breaking as the faces of parents waiting for lottery results of a charter school in "Waiting for Superman" documentary, but very interesting nonetheless.

Then there were the booths of the private schools themselves. If the booths and stands are any indication, there are clearly the 'have' and 'have-not' schools. Just about every booth had a laptop running some sort of demo, or showing the school's website or whatever. The crests, logos, and mottos were on prominent display, even as the PR people practically tried to pry potential customers away from competitors' booths. What I found faintly sickening or pathetic were the number of schools that trotted out their students to either give out brochures, model school uniforms (at least that's what it looked like to me), or demonstrate some sort of artistic commitment that the school has (usually music). Overall the effect was probably the opposite of what was intended: rather than highlighting the schools' commitment to student success, it presented a picture of the schools using the students for their own means. OK, so private schools are of course more interested in students as a source of revenue, but these displays drove that home. "We're going to use your child to get more parents to send their children to our school so that we can make even more money." And then there was the usual spiel about the limited spaces availability, and how important it is to make the choice ASAP and register your child, or else it's too late and the spots will be filled and oh my god what will you do then send your child to a PUBLIC school how can you possibly do that to your dear Johnny/Betty and oh my god the sky is falling!!!!!!!!!!!!!11111!!!111ONEONEONE

OK, take deep breaths you poor breeder. Take nice deep breaths. Everything will be fine. But oh no, here comes the solicituous vulture from one of the financial institutions attending the expo! (I won't list them, but rest assured that a variety of both general banks and credit institutions, as well as companies specializing in education loans) And then the panic really sets in, pitches a cooler and a lawn chair, and cracks open a brewski. Because your child's education will run you anywhere from 12 to 40 thousand a year depending on the type of school, programs, uniforms, lunch options, trips, school locations, and so on. But never fear, these helpful folks from Insert-Your-Debt-Here company will help you take out a second or third mortgage on your house, or advance you a nice 10 year line of credit. Because we wouldn't want to risk your child's future, now would we? Because clearly if you throw money at your child's future, it'll turn out better, won't it?

Dear parents: I'm very critical of some of the methods and reforms in public and Catholic education, but it's not nearly so bad that you need to sell yourself into debt slavery to send your offsprings to a private school

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jetting away?

Looking for a teaching job sucks. But more specifically, looking for a teaching job in Canada sucks, because the system is stacked against the newcomer, because the job market and the economy are stacked against the newcomer, and because the means of searching for a job are positively medieval. Let me break it down for you:

The system is stacked
Teachers in Ontario enjoy some of the best working conditions for teachers in the world: the pay's good, the job security is good, the time required to reach salary ceiling is relatively short (9 years), the opportunities to raise one's qualifications (and therefore pay) are many, the pension and other benefits are fantastic. All of this, however, depends on powerful teacher unions, and therefore there is a price for all these great benefits. Teachers' unions protect their members (they wouldn't be unions if they didn't), but they do so in ways that make entry into teaching profession difficult. Retired teachers are allowed to be on occasional teaching lists (supply teaching, filling in for disability/maternity leaves, etc.) and speaking from experience most supply teachers I've encountered so far have been retired or returning teachers. By contrast, newcoming teachers are at a disadvantage because of lack of classroom experience. It is expected that they will pick up experience through occasional teaching, but just how one is expected to compete with retired teachers who are favoured by the unions and the schools (schools prefer to call retired teachers and old colleagues rather than new teachers - this is a sentiment that I've heard expressed openly)?

The Catch-22 that all fresh newcomers to a job market face ("How am I supposed to get experience if no one will hire me because of lack of experience?") is especially bad for teachers. I'm not saying this to whine, but this is a simple statement of fact. The vast majority of teaching jobs in this country are in the public and Catholic sector, both with powerful teaching unions. A lawyer might not be able to start in a big firm right away, but maybe he can go to a small firm first, work for less money, get experience, and then work his way up. A teacher faces the same public/Catholic school system and union everywhere s/he goes in Ontario. Ah, but maybe the hopeful teacher can pick up experience elsewhere first? Sure, but experience picked up in other provinces or out of country is not valued as highly in Ontario, and moreover you don't accumulate contacts in the Ontario school system. The adage "it's not what you know - it's who you know" is as true in the teaching profession as anywhere else. Getting hired is a lot easier when you know the people interviewing you, or the principle of the school, or if you both know some other third party, and so on.

The job market/economy is stacked
There is a glut of teachers in Canada. After looking at jobs in other provinces, I can safely say that the supposed deficiency of teachers elsewhere in Canada is largely a myth. There are areas constantly in need of teachers (NWT, Yukon, Nunavut, the reserves). There are good reasons for this constant deficiency, but it has nothing to do with a chronic shortage of teachers. Judging by rejection emails I've been receiving, even tiny schools in tiny towns up north in Ontario receive upward of 50 applications per position. The numbers in south-eastern Ontario are much much higher - the highest number of applicants for a single position I've seen so far is 163. So the job market sucks. The economy also sucks. Even if I was to be able to get at least some employment by doing occasional teaching, in today's prices it's enough to live on, but no money to save or pay off the debts with.

Job searching is medieval
Oh sure, they (education employers) found the existance of the internet, but I think they're still a little baffled by how to use it properly or to its best potential. Dig this. Some boards in Ontario hire through a single website while other boards hire through their own board websites, while other boards choose to post jobs on third-party websites. Now applytoeducation would be the best place to look for a job as most of the employers in Ontario use it (but not boards in GTA area strangely enough), were it not for the fact that you have to pay for its use. It costs 80 dollars or so to register with the website, and then you have to pay 10 dollars (plus tax) per board that you wish to apply to. So I have to pay 10 dollars to apply to Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, another 10 dollars to apply to Ottawa-Carleton Catholic District School Board, another 10 dollars to apply to Simcoe Country District School Board, and so on and so on. Having looked at jobs in other countries I can safely and honestly say that this is just about the dumbest, greediest, and inefficient system for job seekers around.

So what next? So far U.K. seems like a pretty good opportunity, and it's something I'm starting to pursue. Will post more later.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Starcraft 2 in review

This is my extensive review of Starcraft 2. I've been waiting for this game for about 12 years and now that the wait is over, I have to say that it's been mostly worth it. Mostly. For convenience sake I've divided this review into four parts: Single Player, Multiplayer, important game changes, and the new Battle.Net. The reason behind this will hopefully become apparent.

Single Player
In the single player, the player assumes the role of the rebel leader Jim Raynor who is fighting the corrupt Dominion regime of his one-time partner Arcturus Mengsk, as well as two alien races - a radical religious faction of the Protoss, and the Zerg led by Raynor's ex-lover Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades. Along the way, Raynor makes new friends and enemies, acquires new (and old) weapons and units, and uncovers secrets that propel the Starcraft setting forward. The campaign structure is nothing like the linear plotline of the original Starcraft, instead letting you do missions in nearly whichever order you prefer. The format is somewhat reminiscent of Dawn of War 2, Dune 2000, or Dawn of War expansions. In the end you have to complete every mission regardless of the order you do them in, but because different missions unlock different units and upgrades, the order in which you do the missions actually make some of the missions play out very differently. There are also three instances where you have to pick between two missions, and completing one then makes the other one (and its unlocks) unavailable - this helps the campaign's replay value somewhat.

Overall I am very happy with the variety of missions, even though you only play as the Terran faction (and three Protoss missions). Blizzard has clearly looked at how the RTS genre has progressed over the last decade, and learned its lesson. There are still some fairly straightforward missions (destroy enemy base, defend your base), but there are many more puzzle missions that make inventive use of terrain and special units to tell a compelling story. I particularly liked missions with special objectives, such as taking out trains, protecting civilian convoys, hijacking monstrous mechs, infiltraing a high-security prison, etc. What Starcraft 2's campaign does particularly well is to tell the story, provide character growth, and explore the setting within the missions rather than just through cinematics and in-between interactions (the way most RTSs do it). During the campaign you get access to the new units, all of the old Starcraft units (firebat, vulture, goliath, wraith, medic, science vessel) and new special units that do not appear in multiplayer, such as the Diamondback tank. In addition, you can hire mercenaries - stronger versions of regular units that have limited squad size.

In between missions you can talk to other characters, explore your battleship Hyperion, conduct research, hire mercenaries, and watch cinematics (some are done using in-game engine and still manage to look on part with some of the latest RTSs like Dawn of War 2, while others are the usual stellar Blizzard pre-rendered cinematics). There are also many neat little details, like trophies you bring back from missions, news channel, jukebox (with some classics like Sweet Home Alabama, and some hilarious new 'hits' like "Protoss, Zerg, and a shotgun"). Overall the ship and its denizens are wonderfully detailed and really bring the setting to love. I was very happy with the quality of the writing and the plot. There were a number of cliches in the plot, and some rather clumsy foreshadowing; however, when compared to the quality of single-player in most RTSs Starcraft 2 really manages to stand out. There were a number of genuinly emotional moments, a couple of stirring speaches, some stellar action scenes, and interesting twists. The single player campaign is like a big budget action movie with a better-than-average plot. I also really have to give a thumb up to the voice actors and skin artists, for in-game cutscenes the characters demonstrate impressive range of emotions, though some people have problems with the style of animations (that is slightly cartoon-y). The pre-rendered cinematics for which Blizzard is famous for do not suffer from this effect however.

This part of the review is based mostly on my beta experiences, but there have been relatively few changes between beta and finished version in regards to multi-player. Once again, there are three races: Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg, and you have but one goal - kill the enemy while staying alive yourself. You have to juggle base building, economy (harvesting two kinds of resources), building and upgrading units, and of course managing your units in combat. Thankfully there are no Warcraft 3-style heroes that muddy up the strategy part of an RTS. The core mechanic of the game is unchanged: there are many viable strategies, but each one has some sort of a counter (and a counter to that, and so on). That means that most games are decided when one of the players makes a mistake. Scouting out the enemy is just as essential as ever, because it lets you see what kind of strategy the enemy is going for, and thus prepare an appropriate counter. Micro-management skills are just as essential as they were in original Starcraft, so people who have grown used to more modern RTSs (like Dawn of War, World in Conflict, End War, etc.) may be put off by this style of gameplay. Sadly, Blizzard took no note of advances in terrain-building and integration of meaningful cover that have been done in the last 10 years, so the terrain is only important in the early game, before air units have been built.

Let's talk a bit about the three factions and how they play in Starcraft 2. Terrans are still presented as the 'balanced' faction, with a mix of cheap and expensive, weak and powerful, units. The terrans retain the ability to pick up and fly their buildings around, and now they also have access to more mobile defenses since the traditional terran bunkers can now be salvaged (to get their resource cost back). In addition, one of the new terran units - the Raven - can place automatic turrets that can help protect secondary bases and workers. Overall the new units that terrans get are a mix of boring and interesting. The Viking that can transform (Robotech style) between flying and ground mode is excellent, while Thor (which replaced the old anti-air mech Goliath) is very lukewarm - I'd rather have the old faster and cheaper Goliath back. The new Medivac - that combines the healing ability of medic and transport ability of the old Dropship - is excellent, but sadly only appears in the late game, thereby robbing terrans of their old marine rush strategy (it is now replaced by MMM - marines+Marauders+medivacs - strategy, which nonetheless comes later than other factions' rush strategies). In addition, the Terrans now have two universal add-ons and can freely switch buildings between the built add-ons. In the hands of a player with good micro-management (micro for short) skills, the terrans can quickly juggle between upgrading their units, or pumping out huge numbers of units. Finally, another major new addition to Terran box of toys is the improved Command Centre. It can still conduct scanner sweeps (revealing the fog of war), but now it can also call down a special super-resource gatherer that really gives Terrans a boost to production, and it can also upgrade supply depots (so that the terrans don't need to build as many). Speaking of supply depots, the terran players can now lower them into the ground, allowing their units to walk over them, thereby making the terran "wall of depots" strategy to be even more effective.

The protoss have changed quite a lot since old Starcraft. Their core shtick - powerful and expensive units - has not changed, but now they have added mobility and teleportation options. For starters the Protoss can now warp their ground units directly onto the battlefield (so long as it is within radius of their pylon building). This allows a protoss player to quickly reinforce in the middle of battle, and create devious ambushes and back-strikes. In fact the old Protoss transport is instead replaced by a unit that allows protoss to build other units at its location - if these are not shot down, the Protoss can pump out a huge army right on your doorstep. In addition the Protoss can use their Nexus to briefly double the rate at which their units or upgrades are being built - it requires a lot of micro-management, but essential to a protoss player. Overall I'm very happy with the new units that the Protoss get - more so than Terrans. The new Stalker replaces the old Dragoon, and has short range-teleportation powers (to bypass cliffs, or to escape enemy fire). The huge colossus (think the Martian Tripod from War of the Worlds) replaces the old lumbering Reaver, and does terrible area damage. The Void Ray has already been dubbed 'the N00b Ray' by the community and is probably the most unbalanced unit in the game. The new Mothership that replaces the Arbiter is a super-powerful and expensive ship (and you can only have one of them on the field at any time) cloaks friendly units and buildings (including your ally's), can suck enemy units into a vortex, and does huge damange. The worst two things about the new Protoss that I would have to pick on are: a) the lack of shield batteries that made Protoss static defense possible in Starcraft 1, and b) the new Phoenix anti-air flyer which is very inadequate in its role.

The Zerg probably came out the worst in Starcraft 2. Their core mechanic is unchanged - all their units are produced from larvae (produced in hatchery), and all their buildings must be built on their creep. The zerg still rely (in theory) on overwhelming numbers and ambush tactics, but in actual gameplay the Zerg - while able to pull off the ambush part - lack the overwhelming numbers they could have in the first Starcraft. The Zerg get the new Queen unit that is absolutely essential because it can produce bonus larvae (thereby obliviating the old Zergs' reliance on multiple hatcheries), it can also heal Zerg buildings, but it is also needed to lay down creep (in first Starcraft the creep expanded automatically). The Queen is so essential to Zerg economy and defense that if the enemy takes out the Queen early, it can spell doom for the remainder of the game. The new Zerg units tend to be lacklustre. The Roach - a short-range acid-spitting ground unit that can move undetected underground - is too expensive post-beta to be an effective rush unit, even though it's one of the cooler new units. The Infestor (that replaces to an extent the old Defiler) is interesting, but its abilities either consume too much energy, or do too little (like the ability to spawn Infested Terrans). The need to upgrader Overlords to Overseers (in order for them to act as detectors) is baffling, as it leaves the Zerg wide open to cloaked assaults. Probably one of the best things to happen to the Zerg are: a) the ability to pick up their spine and spore crawlers (their automatic defense structures) and move them around, and b) the new Nydus Worm that allows a Zerg player to create a tunnel to anywhere on the map where there is creep - that means that Zerg can pull off the best back-strikes or reinforce base when under attack. Overall, however, the Zerg lack the better end-game options that Terrans and Protoss have, as their end-game units are just the old Tarrasque and the new Corruptor (powerful anti-air unit). The new version of the Guardian (which used to be the best long-range artillery unit in the game) is so laughable in SC2 that most players do not bother with it at all. I am just not impressed with Zerg in SC2 at all.

Is multiplayer balanced? Overall I would have to say that Protoss and Terran are balanced against each other, while the Zerg suffer from a number of holes in their counters. Zerg can still pull off the dreaded zergling rush or the mutalisk rush, but it would seem for now that they lack some of the more interesting options of the other races, and their lack of long-ranged options is particularly crippling. Furthermore with the new ability to destroy the Zerg creep, less need for multiple hatcheries, and increased reliance on the Queen, it is easier to cripple the Zerg that it was in the original Starcraft.

Perhaps one of the best things about the new multiplayer in Starcraft is the new matching system. There are basically multiple ladders: 1v1, 2v2, 2v2, 4v4, and once you complete five placement matches you're placed in one of the proficiency categories: bronze, silver, gold, diamond. I have to say that the placement and matching system really works well, since I get 50/50 wins/losses most of the time and that's a sign that I'm in the right bracket. I'll talk more about the new and multiplayer features in its own section.

Important Game Changes
Okay, this part of the review will likely be tedious to anyone who has not played original Starcraft or any RTSs in general. Let's talk about the biggest change to the gameplay - the ability to have unlimited group size. Rather than being limited to 12 units in a hot-key group, you can now have as many as you want in a group. Some players are claiming that this makes micro-skills less important and makes the game more 'n00b' friendly. Some professional players on the other hand instead argue that this actually makes micro more important and interesting than before. In addition to this, you can now select multiple buildings and hot key them all! So you can now select all your barracks (or whatever else) with one button and queue up units in all of them simulteneously. It levels the playing field somewhat, but probably benefits Terrans and Protoss more than Zerg, since Zerg still only ever need to select one building (the hatchery) to build units. Speaking for myself I love not being limited to squads of dozen, and it also allows for more fun massive battles and I can now select a hundred units with one lasso and throw them all into battle. Using tab key becomes essential for cycling between different unit abilities within one group, so micro skills are still as important as ever.

The other big change is that you can now see the ranges of detection buildings and units, as well as the ranges of units such as Siege Tanks. Why is this important? Because it eliminates the need for either guesswork or obsessive 'square' counting of Starcraft 1. I'm not sure how I feel about this change, but it seems that most people like it.

One minor but important change is that on all multi-player maps the base spots come with two Vespene gas refineries instead of just one. That means that players can now rush to more powerful late-game units faster and pump out air units more efficiently. I personally do not like this change since this makes the game even more about the all-powerful air units than the first Starcraft. Furthermore, the static defenses in Starcraft 2 are worse than in the first game, and this often leads to the games boiling down to who can rush air units first, as air rushes are more difficult to stop. This especially benefits Protoss with their basic Void Ray air unit, and Zerg with their versatile Mutalisk flyers.

The other two parts of multiplayer that I want to briefly touch upon are Cooperative vs. AI games and Custom Games. The former is very easy to set up and you can choose from five difficulty levels - Insane is exactly how it sounds, but Hard and Very Hard difficulties are just right. Custom Games are an awesome option and people are already coming out with some pretty sweet maps and new game modes thanks to the outstanding map creator. However, lack of chat (more on that in a bit) makes setting up Custom Games a bit of a pain.
Alright, I saved this for the last because this is the part of Starcraft 2 that I have the most problems with. First off, there is no longer any multiplayer options for connect-to-IP games or LAN games. You have to connect to to play multiplayer, even if you want to play with your buddy who's sitting beside you. To do this is simply inexcusable! Some of my fondest high school memories are of all-night long Starcraft LAN parties (does this date me? :P ), and now that's out of the question. Blizzard has stated that despite loud player demands there will not be any LAN or connect-to-IP options, ostensibly to: a) battle piracy, b) deliver the full Starcraft experience, c) link the accounts for various Blizzard games together. I call shenanigans on this, as I don't give a crap about either a, b, or c. Furthermore, Blizzard partnered up with Facebook and links account to Facebook. Sorry, but I don't want to spam my facebook account with my Starcraft 2 achievement updates, or get spammed with other people's Starcraft 2 achievement updates! Furthermore, there are already reports of security concerns and breaches where people were able to hijack facebook accounts through SC2 and vice-versa. In the final analysis the inclusion of Facebook in is entirely superfluous and annoying.

There there is the baffling lack of any sort of general chat or ability to create private channels. Basically you can only talk to those people who are on your friend list. If you want to have a conference chat you have to form a 'party' from your friend list and you're only limited to four people per party! How guilds (which used to be a huge part of Starcraft 1) are supposed to form and coordinate is beyond me. Moreover, the lack of any sort of non-friend chat means that coordinating setting up a custom game is next to impossible. There is an integrated voice chat that works pretty well, but once again you can only voice chat with people on your friend list or with people on your team, and only if they've enabled voice chat. On the one hand I'm grateful as this prevents idiot 8-year olds from spamming obscenities and other idiot things.

Then there is the problem with adding friends to your list. If you know their Facebook account name, their email, or their name, then adding them is a breeze. But let's say you just played a match with someone and you would like to add them to your friend list? Sorry, you get one shot at this, and if you forget to do it and haven't written down their name then you're S.O.L.! This is kind of annoying.

The new features the ability to view a replay of your match. This is one of the better aspects of the new The replays are very slick, can be sped up, you can view complete map or watch from perspective one of the players. The only problem with the replay option is that you can fast-forward, but not rewind - it's a little annoying. Oh, I guess the other problem now that I think about it is the lack of ability to slow down to 1/4 of regular speed, 1/16, etc., so you can examine your opponent's actions in detail.

Finally, thanks to X-Box-introduced achievements, Starcraft 2 has extensive - yep, you guessed it - achievements! These range from simple "You won 10 matches as Protoss" to more complicated "kill 100 enemy units with one unit", etc. Some achievements give you tangible bonuses like new portraits or decals, but most of these take a long time to unlock. Personally I do not give a crap about achievements in any game, and the inclusion of achievements in Starcraft 2 is utterly superfluous to me.

Final Thoughts:
Starcraft 2 is an extremely polished game. Its single player is one of the best single-player games I've ever played. The story and characters are compelling, engaging, and amusing. The plot, though somewhat cliched, is still fun and interesting enough that I found myself wondering what's going to happen next. The cutscenes - both in-game and pre-rendered - are excellent and voice-acting talent is superb. The multiplayer aspect is just as fast and furious as ever and accomodates both quick 15 minute casual games as well as all-night-long gaming marathons. There are some balance issues, and not all races got equally interesting upgrades and new units, but I'm sure that Blizzard will be working on game balance issues as they're well known to do in the original Starcraft. My biggest problem with the gameplay is that it is essentially still the original Starcraft, though with some changes, new units, better graphics, and more interesting terrain. It is a faithfully classic RTS experience, but one that ignores some of the excellent advances in modern RTSs: cover, better AI pathing and AI-use abilities, squad tactics, and unit synergies. Coupled with some rather annoying and baffling changes to and multiplayer lobbies and accounts I would recommend Starcraft 2 either only as a single-player experience (which in my opinion is well worth the 60 dollars), or to a fan of original Starcraft and 1990s RTSs.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What I learned from Teachers' College and my practicums

From Teachers' College:
- Busywork is the cornerstone of education. If you need to keep the students in the classroom for four hours because the regulations say so, giving them useless busy work is essential.
- Reflective exercises and assignments are a life-saver when you don't really have anything to talk about/assign.
- It is possible to reflect on a reflection assignment. No, there is no irony or circle-jerking tautology in this.
- While the student teachers might get outraged at the notion that teachers are not allowed to fail students anymore, they will not blink an eye at the mutual understanding that all student teachers will receive As and will graduate Teachers' College. (unless they fuck up their practicums)
- If there is absolutely no filler left (not even reflection), put on some YouTube video somehow related to education and talk about that.
- While student teachers are required to affirm that they're in the profession because they like to teach/they want to give back to the community/they want to be inspirational figures, it is understood by everyone that the vast majority are in it for the salary and the benefits.
- A corollary to the point immediately above: a student teacher should never ever admit that she/he went to Teachers' College because she/he didn't have any other options after receiving a bachelor or master's.
- You will remember why you've hated groupwork back in high school.
- You will learn that the saying "those who can't, teach" has many additional layers of meaning in Teachers' College.
- The best instructors in Teachers' College are the ones who are the most cynical about the profession.

So as not to leave on an entirely gloomy note, here's what I learned about teaching, myself, and children from my practicums:
- The first time you walk to the board and start a lesson you will feel sick.
- They (the students) can see, hear, and smell fear.
- You might feel like a fraud in front of the board, but as long as you wear a shirt and tie (skirt and blouse, etc.) and don't show fear they will take you seriously.
- Learn their names ASAP (at least first names, preferably last names) - it will be your greatest weapon.
- There are two things that students love, from age 12 to age 18: a good story, and candy. NEVER underestimate the motivating power of candy.
- Develop a sense of humour. Learn to laugh at yourself first and foremost, learn that it's ok to poke fun at your students from time to time as well. Figure out who the class joker is and use him/her to best advantage!
- Another powerful weapon in the teacher's arsenal is the seating plan. Even the merest threat of moving the students around is enough to shush them up for a lesson.
- Group work is heaven-sent for teachers! Even if nothing productive comes out of it, you still managed to waste a whole class.
- Be prepared to change your plan for the day on the spot. Maybe it'll take the whole lesson to cover what you thought should take only 5 minutes. Maybe there's an assembly that you completely forgot about. Maybe someone was sick in the class. Maybe you forgot about some religious holiday and now half the class is absent.
- Learn to talk loudly without shouting. Learn when to talk, and when to shut up.
- Learn to respect your students. They might be functionally illiterate, flighty, surly, opinionated, easily distracted, dense, slow, and a host of other things, but they're still people, and they still have potential and self-worth. Plus it will make your job easier too!

Monday, April 19, 2010

The next generation

One of the more challenging and interesting things about teaching English in general, and poetry specifically, is coming up with material that students would enjoy, think, and talk about. I quite enjoyed the premise and structure of this poem, plus it also made me think - which generation will my students become? Will they be the 'lost generation', or will the reverse be true?

Lost Generation (by Jonathan Reed)

I realize this may be a shock but
'Happiness comes from within'
is a lie, and
'Money will make me happy'
So in thirty years I will tell my children
they are not the most important thing in my life.
My employer will know that
I have my priorities straight because
is more important than
I tell you this
Once upon a time
Families stayed together
but this will not be true in my era
this is a quick fix society
Experts tell me
Thirty years from now I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my divorce
I do not concede that
I will live in a country of my own making
In the future
Environmental destruction will be the norm
No longer can it be said that
My peers and I care about this earth
It will be evident that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic
It is foolish to presume that
There is hope.

And all of this will come true unless we choose to reverse it.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Just a short-ish rant. This week Ann Coulter - political commentary pundit who appears frequently on FOX - was supposed to give a talk at the University of Ottawa. Just a few days before that, she gave a talk at the University of Western Ontario, where she not only made rather radical and racist remarks, but also got into a shouting argument with a 17 year old female Arab student. Following that outrage, the University of Ottawa warned Coulter that discriminatory and racist language would not be tolerated on campus. She fired back with some snide comments about the university and political correctness. As a result of that, and quite possibly the fact that she is one of the most foul-mouthed, right-winged, racist and idiotic people on TV, a large crowd gathered (some media sources said 2000, personally I would estimate no more than 1000 - saw it myself being on campus at the time) to protest her talk. So then Coulter's security decided to cancel the talk, having security concerns. Of course she immediately invected about political correctness in Canada, lack of free speech, and University of Ottawa being a "bush league" school. Personally this is possibly the first time in 10 years that I'm proud to be a University of Ottawa student and alumni. My fellow students chose to exercise their freedom of speech, and Coulter fucked off. Way to go!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Beware of invisible cows

This short story started as a humorous free-write on this traffic sign, and then turned into something else entirely. It's not polished or anything, but I hope you enjoy it.

“And there it was,” Mike complained. “What was?” asked the confused deputy. “You know, sacrosanct belief in the invisible hand of the market. It just came out of nowhere, and I couldn’t swerve. My bumper’s totally ruined.” The deputy sighed and took a long look at the slick pavement: “Look, I don’t see anything.” Mike angrily kicked the air: “Of course you can’t, it’s invisible.” The deputy rolled his eyes and jotted down a couple of lines in his notpad: “Then how do you know it was the sacrosanct belief in the invisible hand of the market?” “What else could it be? Pete hit the sacred belief in the goodness of man just last week, it’s not like there’s a lot of them sacred cows left. I tell you, the county should really put a sign here.”

The deputy gave out another sigh and looked over the forlorn fields stretching on either side of the road. Dealing with deaths of metaphysical concepts was just not what he signed up for. Writing up speeding tickets, breaking up a drunken brawl once in a while, or talking down a domestic dispute, those were easy and understandable, and that’s what he was trained to do. What was he supposed to do if a local farmer ran over the belief that education could better someone? This was probably the fourth time he had been called out here, and the county vet’s office had given up on trying to resuscitate the deceased bovines. “Look,” he told Mike after taking another look at the landscape, “I’ll go and talk to Mr. Werner and explain to him that he’s gotta mend that fence. All those ideas wandering around are dangerous alright.” Mike exploded: “And who’s going to pay for my bumper? Those cows of his are a dying breed anyways, I have to pay the bills and getting my truck fixed up ain’t going to help that!” “Alright, alright,” the deputy held up his hand, “I’ll go and talk to Mr. Werner and see what we can work out. Meanwhile, I’ll call you a tow truck.”

A slow drizzle set in on the way to the Werner Farm. The road showed no signs of any recent repair, and the deputy felt every bump and pothole on the way there. The fences have not been mended in a while; business clearly wasn’t going well for Werner. An old crease-faced woman watched impassively as the deputy pulled up. He got out, stifling a curse as some water managed to get under his collar, and donned his hat: “Got some bad news for you Missis Werner. You got yourself another stray.” The woman spat, “You talk to my husband. He’s inside.” The farmer was inside and already deep in his cups. He got up to his feet unsteadily and offered a shaking rheumy hand; hard life and deaths of Big Ideas left their mark on a once young and vigorous bull of a man. “Which one?” he wheezed. The deputy picked at the brim of his hat: “invisible hand of the market, Mr. Werner sir. Wandered through the western side of the fence, went right into Mike McGill’s pickup.”

“Ah goddammit,” complained the old man, “time was them sacred cows could just bounce back, ain’t nothing that could kill them. I tell you, these modern cynics are even worse for business than those hippie vegetarians. What am I supposed to do with the carcass now?” The deputy was beginning to be irritated: “Now look Mr. Werner, you gotta mend your fence. Having all those ideas wandering around the countryside is just too dangerous. Next time it could go through the windshield head on, could maybe kill someone. You know how it is.” “Time was,” the old man rambled on oblivious, “these things mattered. They were sacred, sure they just stood there and chewed up the countryside, but by God they mattered. People would come from afar to look at them. The Flat World, Creation in Seven Days, Fair Wage for Fair Labor; all gone now, all gone.”

“Look Mr. Werner. You just fix that fence before someone gets hurt, or another one of your cows get run over. Next time it’ll be the Sheriff coming out here, ok?” He stood up, and stretched. He thought about offering his hand again to the farmer, and turned to the door, tipping hit hat to the old farmwife. He stood on the porch for half a minute and walked to his car. The drizzle was lifting, and somewhere in the distance a cow lowed.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


This is a recipe for the so-called "Salad Olivier", named after a famous French chef, who headed the famous Hermitage restaurant in St. Petersburg around 1860 (here's the wiki link: Since then it entered the Russian diet as the sort of salad you make for special and festive occasions (birthdays, New Year's, etc). Anyhow, making it is time consuming, but it's always like a taste of home for me. I've introduced a number of my Canadian friends and family and coworkers to it, and just about everyone likes it (with one or two long-haired exceptions who will remain nameless). Here's the recipe as it was passed down to me by my ancestors. :)

5 or 6 large potatoes
3 large carrots
5 eggs
500g jar of pickles (dill or garlic work best, and Vlasic's kosher pickles are also good for this)
1 can of sweet peas
500g of bologne (blue ribbon or all-beef works; you can also use 500g of steak, boiled beef tongue, ham, or boiled chicken)
2 or 3 sprigs of fresh parsley
Olive oil or vegetable oil (optional)
White Vinegar (optional)
Grannysmith apples (optional)

Step 1: boil the potatoes and carrots, both with skin on. Hardboil the eggs.
Step 2: peel the potatoes and carrots, chop both into small cubes, the smaller the better. Same for the eggs. Combine in a large bowl.
Step 3: chop up all the pickles, combine with ingredients from Step 2. DO NOT drain the pickle juice in the jar, leave it aside.
Step 4: chop up the meat (bologne, steak, beef tongue, ham, or chicken), add to the rest of the ingredients.
Step 5: add all the sweat peas, and most of the sweetened water from the peas' can into the salad.
Step 6: add 4 to 5 tablespoons of mayonnaise to the salad, mix well.
Step 7: add some of the pickle juice (I would recommend maybe 3 tablespoons, but this is more to personal taste), and salt to taste. Mix well.
Step 8: Chop up fresh parsley (larger pieces) and garnish the salad. You're done! Enjoy. :)

Cooking time: approximately an hour
Preparation time: about an hour (there is a lot of fine chopping involved)

You can substitute pickles for fresh cucumbers instead; in this case add just a bit of white vinegar instead of the pickle juice. Some other recipes also call for about a tablespoon of olive oil or vegetable oil - add at the same time as the mayonnaise. Finally, you can also add large slices of apples to the salad as well. For a vegetarian alternative, take out the meat, put in an extra egg, and a small fresh onion (finely diced).

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Something rotten in Denmark"

The poster tagline for "Fargo" says: "A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere." A lot happens in the middle of nowhere in Denmark, in an excellent Danish thriller "Terribly Happy" ("Frygtelig Lykkelig). I wouldn't necessarily say that the movie moved me, but it kept me on the edge (figuratevely) throughout the whole movie. If Hitchcock wrote the script, the Coen brothers directed it, and David Lynch shot it, you'd get a movie like "Terribly Happy".

A brief synopsis: a disgraced cop arrives in a small town surrounded by fields and bogs. The locals aren't friendly and want to run things their way, their ways are strange and discomporting to the new marshal, and people "just disappear". The local abused wife is putting the moves on the new arrival, and the creepy girl in a red coat keeps pushing her squeky barrel. An empty car is sinking in the bog and no one cares who the car belongs to or what is it doing in the bog in the first place. The town bully breaks people bones, and the townspeople have an unorthodox way of disciplining children. Somehow all of these are connected, but to say more would be to spoil the movie.

The tension (and the twist) do not come from not knowing who commits the crime (or rather crimes), it comes from guessing how the plot can possibly be resolve in a way that does not involve a gun and a wood chipper (wink wink nudge nudge Coens). The resolution did not entirely surprise me, but unexpectedly left me with something I would not have guessed this kind of movie could - a smile.

Would I recommend this movie? Yes, I think that anyone who enjoyed "Fargo" or "Psycho" or more recent "No Country for Old Men" would enjoy "Terribly Happy", but it is probably not worth watching more than once. Sadly, it is not out on DVD in North America, but a torrent of it (with subtitles) can be found easily.

Monday, January 11, 2010

End of the Tale

Today, a great author and human being passed away - Sergei Kozlov. He was 70 years old. Most westerners would not be familiar with him, although film buffs would recognize him as the author of "Hedgehog in the Fog" on which "Tale of Tales" (1975) is based on. As an aside, it is recognized by multiple awards, cinema guilds and associations, as the Best Animated Film of all time. Sergei Kozlov wrote tales, not fairy tales or folk tales, although they could be superficially called that; his characters were usually animals, but they are more human than most human characters. His books were ostensibly written for children, but they deal with issues of death and loss and hope and longing in such a poignant way that they’re among the very few written works that have ever reduced me to tears. To the best of my knowledge he has never been translated into English. As far as I am concerned, it would be a nearly impossible task. So, here it goes then:

Once upon a time lived in the forest Hedgehog-Needle. He had a house with an oven and a chimney, his house had a lightbulb and was made out of a mushroom, and there was a full larder. But still Hedgehog wanted something…
- I’m disquieted, - he would tell to Flower. – It aches here, - and would point to his chest. – I want to go to the sea, he would say.

But the Flower never saw the sea, and so would say:
- You’re being sad for no reason, Hedgehog. Look at how beautiful I am, look how tall the pines are, hear how the birds are singing! And everyone in the forest knows you and loves you. But every day the Hedgehog was growing sadder and sadder.

- I want to go to the sea, he would complain to the Ant.
- What’s it like? – would ask the Ant.
- Big. But I never saw it myself.

And so one early morning, when milky stars were still swimming in the sky, Hedgehog left his house and started walking to the sea. In his paw he had a stick, and on his shoulder a small sack with food.

Whether it took him a long time or a short time, eventually Hedgehog arrived at the sea.
- Hello, sea! – said Hedgehog
- Hello, Hedgehog! – said the sea.
And a wave rolled. “Pfff!... – it struck the shore. Shhhh…” – it hissed on the pebbles, retreating.
And Hedgehog also took a step forward and said: “Pfff!... and running back a little, - shhh-sh!...”
- I resemble you, right?
- Very much so! – said the sea. And once again a wave hit the shore.

Hedgehog played with the sea for a whole day: he would run to the very edge, or run away from the water. Falling a sleep on the sand under a rock, he would shiver, and it would seem to him that he was – a small sea on four small paws.

“Pfff-f!... – he mumbled under his breath. – Shhh-h!”
And his breath raised and lowered needles.”

Thank you Sergei.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Why storytelling is hard, but Storytelling is easy (long rant)

Your average English teacher (i.e. my colleagues) would probably say that writing a story, or telling a story, is a matter of combining together: plot, characters, setting, flow. Throw in some conflict, literary flourishes, plot structure, and you got yourself a story, right? Wrong. What you got is a skeleton, It’s rough, edged, barren. What it lacks is flesh - or rather what I’d call relish. Not the kind you put on a hot dog, but what a story ought to be told with: “Tell it with relish.” A good storyteller can launch into a story with only a barest idea of plot and characters and pull it off, relying on archetypes, building up atmosphere, and making the story personal and immediate to the audience. A good story is always told with the current audience in mind, each time different. A business report or resume is like baking - the recipe is precise and must be followed to the letter. A story is more like a stir-fry - the basic ingredients might not change, and the method of preparing it (hey, you gotta have a stir-fry pan and some oil at least) might not alter either - but each time it’s just a little different.

So how much harder would it be then to tell a story in which the main characters are actively controlled by other people? How much more difficult is Storytelling (or Game-Mastering) than storytelling? I think the case is quite the opposite - it’s easier to tell the story with Player Characters, than to just tell a good story. There are many types of players, but for this argument I’m reducing all players to two categories - those who want to tell a story, and those who want to hear a story. The first type want to have control over their characters’ story. That is not to say that this type of player wants to have complete control over their character (i.e. choosing when their character dies, etc), but rather this kind of player wants to be able to choose her own adventure, get vested in the world, have freedom. Does she want a sandbox game? Not necessarily. If presented with a story, this kind of player will seek to actively engage with it, figure out why her character is motivated, where she seeks to steer the story.

The other type of player is more passive when it comes to participating in a story. They seek to be entertained, to be pulled along for the ride. Their characters - whether they have motivations or not - need to be given a quest, they are far less likely to go out of their way to find adventure if none is clearly presented. On one hand they can be a godsend to a GM (Game master)/ST (Storyteller. Same difference really). As long as the railroad tracks are nice and obvious, the quest rewards are known, and their characters have a goal, these players will likely play along nicely. I am not being derisive here, the benefit is that this kind of player will work well (or at least function) within the boundaries of the story.

It’s worth reiterating at this point that a good story should be tailored to the audience. Whether the group is composed of those who want to tell a story, those who want to hear a story, or a mix of the two, storytelling with players is easier than simply telling a story. The story-making players often just need a world to play in and interesting things for their characters to do, and ideally their characters’ back-stories and motivations being involved in the main story (if there is one). Get a bunch of these players together, give them a world to sink their teeth into, and you can sit back and watch the chemistry happen. A group composed entirely of story-listeners requires more preparation work, but less intellectual work. The game becomes more structured and laid-out (and that is often much easier to handle than the free-flowing on-the-fly games), and the job of the GM is to continue providing quests and hooks for the players; here, pacing becomes crucial as the story-listeners will get bored more easily if they sit around with nothing to do.

My ideal player type is the former. I dislike structure and being railroaded most of the time, although I do like to participate in a cohesive narrative when I’m playing myself. The story-making players are easier to prepare a game for, and are less interested in the traditional quest structure. On the flip side, the game is much more on-the-fly and that can be occasionally challenging as well. Planning for such players is also harder, often they come up with unexpected solutions and can grow petulant when the narrative choices (or solutions) are limited.

I think that is the reason why when I think about the next game I want to run, the same two themes come up: political intrigue and role-playing heavy, and epic quest adventures with over-the-top characters. The former type of game is for the type of players I like. The latter type of game is for the type of game that I’d want to actually play in. I guess the adage that “Every DM runs a game he secretly wants to play in” is true.