Thursday, November 22, 2012


To bring about the unity of azure sea and steely sky:
Distill patina of the ages from your horses,
The amber tears that the ghetto and casinos cry,
And trace the inkstains of your canal courses.

The feet of beggars and the dukes in motion,
The steps from churches to the water worn,
Your songs and echoes carry dust to ocean,
And all of us who bear your candle mourn.

The rolling rumbling rhythm of your bells,
The sketches of the sun and shadows,
Transform the streets into the alphabet of spells,
La Serenissima - our mother and our gallows.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Back in the saddle

Today I DM'd my third ever 4th edition D&D game. I have been very skeptical and critical of 4th edition in the past, but I admit that I only ran premade adventures whose quality was subpar, and my knowledge of the rules was sketchy. This time around I decided to do write an original adventure, do a bit of prep, and take advantage of what 4th edition does best: combat, easy encounter and monster creation, and more combat. It took me perhaps half an hour to an hour to grok how combat and non-combat encounters are created, and what is considered a balanced encounter in 4th edition. Another 10 minutes was spent figuring out how advancing monsters and stacking templates work. Then I was off to the races. As is typical for my games, I follow The Lazy Man's Guide to GMing. I had a loose plot in mind, a few names for the npcs, and a rough map and flowchart. Those took about 15 minutes to come up with. The bulk of the time was spent creating the solo boss, which was a breeze thanks to online NPC generators, the easy template and level advancement rules in 4e, and lack of need to stat out the equipment of the boss. That took about 30 minutes, most of which was consumed by Google searches and writing. Perhaps another 20-30 minutes was spent flipping through different monster manuals to populate the remainder of the adventure. So in total perhaps I spent two to two and a half hours on prep, and an hour of that was just learning new systems and locating where all the relevant rules are - something I won't need to do for next time. The session was very fun, and I think going with a James Bond/The Laundry Files super-spies meet techno-thrillers meet supernatural horror meet fantasy feel paid off, although it featured more combat encounters than I'm usually used to. I'm actually excited for more 4e now!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Dishonored: a classic in the making

I was interested in Bethesda's and Arcane Studio's new game Dishonored ever since the first teaser and details were released. A first-person stealth shooter with RPG elements, set in a new and original steampunk setting with supernatural elements? How does this NOT sound like Thief games? Thief 3 is definitely in my top 10 PC games, but if the first Dishonored game is any indication, then its sequel (or sequels) will make its way on this list as well. This game is wickedly fun to play, with a well-crafted setting, where only the story falls somewhat short of expectations. Dishonored offers a tantalizing glimpse into Bethesda's and Arcane Studio's new original IP (that's intellectual property), that I look forward to exploring further in updates and hopefully sequels.

The game's setting of Dunwall city is strongly based on England undergoing the throes of Industrial Revolution of 19th century. Here, technological advancement, economic growth, and strange steampunk technology are made by the use of whale oil, which in this world has all sorts of strange applications. The references to whale hunting, whether through in-game books, whaling ships, in-game advertisements, and so on, have prompted many to refer to the setting as "whale punk". The city of Dunwall is suffering from a terrible plague, as well as political corruption, crime, and the effects of Industrial Revolution. The character whose actions the player controls is Corvo - a bodyguard and adviser to the Empress who rules Dunwall and the Isles Kingdom (not so-subtle Britain, down to its own version of rebellious Ireland - here known as Moray). Corvo is framed for the murder of the Empress and kidnapping of her daughter, and must work to regain his honor (hence the title). His work will involve much skulking about, slashing of throats, backstabbing, choking out the guards, and possessing people and animals. To accomplish his goals Corvo joins forces with a loyalist conspiracy which provides Corvo with weapons and tools he needs, and a strange god-like entity called the Outsider who gives Corvo supernatural powers to give him an edge.

The gameplay is that of a first-person shooter, combined with some elements of an RPG, and strongly resembles the Thief series, as well as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Bioshock games. The player has access to a number of weapons (sword, pistol, crossbow) with different ammo types, traps and grenades, and a host of supernatural powers. The powers are quite varied and very colourful, and can be combined in interesting ways to create mayhem. Corvo can "blink" to higher ledges or behind enemies (for assassination kills or choke-outs), slow down or even stop time, see in the dark and see through walls, and possess people and animals. The most imaginative power by far is that of the heart. Corvo carries a still-beating heart that not only displays the runes and bone charms (more on them in a bit) in the area, but also offers interesting and creepy facts about whichever objects, people or setting that Corvo is facing - occasionally I just went around pointing that heart at everything I could think of in a level. The mystery of the heart's identity is a neat one and is strongly hinted at throughout the game.

The fun comes from figuring out how to use these weapons, tools, and powers in creative ways to bypass obstacles and achieve goals. One of the most gruesomely hilarious ways I've found was to wait until a large group of enemies was clumped around me, freeze time, attach a razorwire mine to one of the enemies, then stand behind that enemy and unfreeze time - instant ground meat! Another worthwhile tactic was to re-wire arc pylons (electricity-powered doom cannon) to target enemies instead of me, and then lead the guards on a merry chase towards it (although after the first couple of guards got zapped, the enemy would then try to cut off the power supply - the AI in this game is quite good). Although Corvo is sent on missions, rather than exploring a sandbox world like Skyrim, within each mission there are many different ways to accomplish tasks. The more people Corvo kills, the more chaos spreads through the city, occasionally making progress more difficult, but it's also a lot easier to just hack and slash through the level rather than carefully sneaking around and exploring every different nook and cranny. The strategies the player chooses alter the game experience dramatically. Corvo can also choose to pay for different upgrades to his gear to suit the player's style, which is further added to by runes and bone charms. Runes can be used to purchase and upgrade supernatural powers, while bone charms provide small but persistent bonuses. The trick is that the player cannot gather enough runes to buy and upgrade every power in the game, and can only equip a maximum of 6 bone charms (while there are easily three times as many).

The setting is very atmospheric and begs to be explored. There is probably over a hundred in-game books, notes, audio recordings, and dozens of conversations that the NPCs have with each other (and can be eavesdropped on). The game takes place for the most part in an urban environment, from city ruins, to flooded and plague-ridden districts, sumptuous noble mansions and brothels, and various military installations. Unlike the setting of Thief which is strongly medieval despite primitive steam power technology, Dishonored feels 19th/20th century, with quasi-modern military fortresses and facilities, and even a nod to Half-Life 2 here and there (some of the building designs are very clearly influenced by HL2's City 17). Fully exploring each mission level is rewarded with information about the setting, money, gear, and is just worth it for the sake of fun. Running through each level doing the bare minimum would ignore probably 90% of the game. One minor quibble I have with the setting though is that it seems almost too bright. Most missions take place during the day, which just seems out of place. But maybe I'm used to Thief's perpetual gloom.

The story, unfortunately, falls rather short of the gameplay and the setting. It's very predictable, with few genuinely interesting characters, and all the twists can be seen coming a mile away. There are some limited dialogue choices, but the player is always presented with only two possible choices (precisely one dialogue in the game is an exception to this). Curiously Corvo is not himself voiced, so while he is clearly talking to NPCs (unlike Gordon Freeman or the protagonist of Bioshock), the player only hears the audio for the NPCs. Corvo really doesn't have that many lines that he couldn't be fully voiced, so I found that to be jarring and disappointing. The story also lacks an emotional punch that it could have - I didn't find myself caring much for any of the people I encountered or even the main character. There were a couple of interesting characters (a certain blind wizened woman and an honorable gang boss come to mind), but for the most part the characters were cliche-ridden stereotypes. What I did find gratifying about the story is that the choices Corvo makes throughout the game (even the innocuous ones) have a strong bearing on later levels and the end of the game. Help one character out when you didn't have to, and later s/he will help you right back. Finally, I quite enjoyed that the game could be played without killing anyone, even the supposed assassination targets. There is always a non-lethal way to take out or bypass a guard, and likewise assassination targets could be captured, blackmailed, or be dealt with in ways that do not involve sharp pointy objects.

What I really wish is for Dishonored to have pushed the envelope further, and I hope it sells well enough to warrant a sequel. It's not a long game - I explored each level as fully as possible and it took me 20 hours to complete, although I am planning on playing it again to get a different ending. It also hints at many mysteries in the setting that are not explained (the ruins of an older nameless city, a village of witches, the Deep Ones - a reference to Lovecraft's "A Shadow over Innsmouth" or simply another name for whales?), and locations outside of Dunwall that sound like they could be fun to explore. Dishonored is a great new original IP which pays homage to both classics like Thief, and newer hits like Bioshock and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I can't wait for the sequel, here's hoping it will be darker, more sprawling, and expand the setting further.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ode to a woman sitting next to me on the bus

Gentle snowflake.
I know the world is harsh and cruel.
A seat on the bus when it was full
Of jostling, tired, angry people.
Forgive me that I took the window seat
Before you
And now my stop is here.
Do not
Want to stand up so I can exit.
Those delicate lower limbs
Were surely not meant to bear
Your inconsequential weight.
Now I have to squeeze by you,
My bag hitting, crashing, smashing
Your head.
You are afraid, I understand.
If you stood up who knows what would have happened
To your precious seat.
Probably nothing at all.
Sorry about your head.
And my missed stop.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Newsroom

The season's end of HBO's new show "The Newsroom" hits all the right notes in an otherwise tone-deaf series. I had been deeply ambivalent about the show and what it was trying to do after the first episode. I don't think I would be remiss in saying that there are only two essential and wholly good episodes in the show - the first and the last one.

But perhaps I am being too harsh, because in its own way The Newsroom is more ambitious than any other HBO - or indeed television in general - show. It is not about the gorgeous costumes, huge casts, lush sets, gratuitous violence and sex (hello Game of Thrones and Rome) - it is instead about the viewers' minds. It is not the first time that the show's most famous writer and creator - Aaron Sorkin - reaches for a lofty goal. His purpose is to reach the viewer's heart and soul, and through them the viewer's mind and reason itself. He realizes that there are essentially two ways in which to make an issue matter: one is to make it as personal as possible, the other is to appeal to emotions (anger and hate works for Rush Limbaugh, humour and contempt work for Stewart and Colbert). Sorkin attempts to do both. He is - to paraphrase the show's dialogue from the last episode - the Greater Fool.

Why the deep ambivalence? For one thing the attempt to make the cast seem more human and approachable was rather heavy-handed. By having the characters engage in slapstick (falling down, tripping over desks and open cabinets, getting tangled up in a phone wire) they are perhaps supposed to appear more vulnerable. The only thing that registered with me was how ridiculous and out of place it looked. The characters are already compelling and interesting without these cheap tricks. I don't need a big "See how much they are like you!" sign to sympathize with the characters.

The other attempt to make the characters more human and interesting, and - I suppose - inject more human interest in the show, is the romance. There is nothing in and out of itself wrong with that, but it constantly felt to me that the romantic subplots (because there are several) were intruding into the show's real heart. The bittersweet unresolved breakup and attracting between the show's main characters Will and Mackenzie was at times very compelling, yet Sorkin then injects a cliche and trite office affair between the young and restless associate producers, that then turns into a love triangle, which later turns into a love square (or would it be two love triangles?), and then introduces even more complications that just tend to slow down the pace of the main plot. That's not to say that there is no heart in it, but it seems added on and overblown. In another attempt to give the characters more depth, midway through the show the main character Will starts attending therapy. The therapy sessions are meant to be glimpses into Will's psyche and past, but they too feel mostly unnecessary. Sorkin delights in telling us, not showing us.

But now I get around to two main sticking points. The Newsroom is about a major syndicated TV news show (the fictional broadcasting corporation is a convenient acronym amalgam of CNN, ABC and NBC - notice the conspicuous absence of F to the O to the X). Every episode of the series the cast of The Newsroom cover a piece of news. What makes it brilliant is that the news they cover is not of the fake variety, but are actual important (for the most part - forgive me if I think that Anthony Weiner twitter scandal was complete and utter shitstorm in a teacup) events that have happened last year. The premise is that the cast of characters are struggling to make good objective news - objective, thoughtful, backed by facts, and dignified - what the character of Mackenzie insists on calling News 2.0 (that the actors did not cringe when using this line is a credit to their talent). However, their coverage is anything but objective! In Sorkin's world, courageous and credible and objective news show is one that incessantly criticizes Republicans (especially its Tea Party branch) and big businesses. Now personally I have no problem with criticizing either of these, but every time one of the characters goes on a moral rant about how they are bringing reason and objectivity into the news profession it just ends up sounding like a self-parody. That the characters do not apparently see their own bias and continue to insist on delivering "just the news" is bewildering.

Sorkin is unapologetic, however, about his goal. He wants to educate Americans, bring our attention to the issues of the past and remind us of the things that matter, and restore the faith in America, its style of democracy, and its citizenry. The problem is that quite often his characters tend to slide into snarky moralizing. What are otherwise perfectly valid and important and well-stated facts and arguments, begin to sound like high-handed condescending sermons directed from the pulpit of a news desk (or an office desk sometimes) at the ignorant unwashed masses. What makes it even more unpalatable is that the most of the time these sermons are directed at characters who are already in essential agreement with the gist of the message. It never seems that convincing is all that hard to do. A fiery impassioned speech backed up by facts delivered in Sorkin's signature quick-firing monologue style while the camera dramatically hovers or cuts shots mid-speech, always seems to do the trick. If only it was always this easy. And the final point in this negative part of the rant is that for all the cast's concern with educating the American citizen no impact on the citizenry is in fact shown, and the common viewers of the show appear very infrequently as crowds in the background, adoring fans asking for autographs, and occasional person or two in a store or at a party. The news-making characters of the show very rarely engage in any meaningful dialogue with 'the common man' (first and last episodes a big exception), which just makes them seem like they are living in their beautiful glass garden on top of an ivory tower.

Hold on, you might be saying. Isn't there anything good about the show? What about all the stuff you've said at the beginning? Well, this is still a show worth watching and admiring for what it's trying to accomplish, and how. For starters it has a great cast. There is great chemistry between the actors, they are convincing no matter how unconvincing the dialogue (or rather the monologue) is, and they make the characters seem real and interesting without the aid of slapstick, romance, or depressive ennui. Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer shine, Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame is a funny and endearing character, Sam Waterstone's is at times uproariously funny and at times tragically sad, Olivia Munn is convincing as a socially inept genius economist, and Terry Crews (yes, THE Terry Crews from Expendables and way too many action B movies to list) really steals the show in the last few episodes. The show's young and restless (the associate producers) fall rather flat. John Gallagher, Allison Pill and Thomas Sadoski may be fine actors (I only recall Allison Pill from her previous works), but they try too hard and their characters are a mess.

The show's dialogue (as opposed to its monologues and declamations) is sharp, witty, snappy, and funny. The quick-firing exchanges are never difficult to follow and nearly always entertaining. The show's humor comes out in these exchanges, and the show's humanity and creators' love for their characters come out in the rare quiet moment. Ironically the characters do not sound as mouthpieces for Sorkin precisely when they are actually delivering the news. We expect our news anchors to talk to us, to be masters of monologue (if only most of them were), and so those moments when the character of Will McAvoy or Olivia Munn are speaking to us behind the news desk are precisely the moments when the passion of the show's writers is most convincing.

What really makes the show work, however, is its premise (fictional show about real news) and the goals of the show's creators. It strives to make politics, media and society seem human and relevant again through a medium that has largely failed to do so in the past. Although not a talk show like the Daily Show or the Colbert's Report, it attempts the same thing - people pay more attention to actually important news if they are being entertaining (through drama or comedy, or The Newsroom's case both). The thing is, it really does say all the right things. It really does raise the demons of our not-too-distant past that need to be revisited. There is a deep and abiding faith that the country is not lost, that its people are not a herd of mindless cattle, that its political leaders (Democrats and Republicans) can do better, that the media is not always out to fool us. In one episode a character accuses the cast of living in a utopian dream. Well, it might be utopian and it might be a dream. But in these flashes of brilliance when everything comes together, The Newsroom shows us why it's a dream worth having. Bring on Season 2!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bourne Legacy

I'm a big fan of the Bourne series, so I waited with some anticipation for the reboot/quasi-sequel - "Bourne Legacy". In hindsight, I should have curbed my enthusiasm - "Bourne Legacy" is a competently assembled film with excellent cast, but it fails to deliver the thrills or advance the plot of the franchise in any meaningful way.

For those unfamiliar with earlier Bourne movies, the short synopsis is that a secret U.S. program has been creating experimental super spies/assassins, using behaviour modification, drugs and gene therapy. Jason Bourne is the product of this program, he loses his memories, go rogue, and by the end of the third movie has exposed the program and its sinister shadowy government handlers. Bourne Legacy takes place chronologically just before the third movie and ends at the same time as the third movie in the series does. In my opinion a moviegoer who has not seen the previous three films will be confused throughout the first act of Bourne Legacy. Not a small amount of confusion for a newcomer to the series will be that the namesake of the series - Jason Bourne - does not make an appearance at all. This movie deals with the consequences and ramifications of Bourne's actions on the program and the people involved in it. There will be explosions, chases, parkour, and fighting wolves with bare hands. There will also be long, tedious expositions, meaningful looks being thrown, and a couple of exotic locales.

The main characters of "Bourne Legacy" are Jeremy Renner playing another rogue agent of the program that created Bourne, Rachel Weisz as the scientists involved in the program who's trying to help Renner's character, and Edward Norton as the government hatchet man in charge of covering up the program. Many faces from the original trilogy also make appearances. The cast is excellent and Renner's and Norton's performances particularly stand out. Renner brings humour, humanity, and dignity to the role, and Norton has a frigidly calm professional demeanour dripping with sinister insinuations. Weisz - an actress I've adored for many years - is generally good in her role, but nothing to write home about.

So why didn't I like the movie then? It's actually rather difficult to formulate, but a few points stand out. For one thing there isn't enough globe-trotting going on. Most of the film happens in the U.S., and indoors, and could be set really anywhere, unlike some of the original series where much of the action happened all over the glove (OK, Europe mostly) but in recognizable locales that actually made sense in the story. In "Bourne Legacy" the final climatic chase/fight scene happens in Manila, but it is never explained why drugs for secret U.S. government program would be manufactured in Philippines - isn't Mexico or Costa Rica closer? The addition of Manila as a set piece feels very tacked on and random - maybe the studio got a grant from the Philippines government?

Another gripe I have is that "Bourne Legacy" doesn't throw much of a bone to newcomers as I've already mentioned. We get flashbacks to second and third movie, there's constant talk about Jason Bourne, various names and code names from the previous movies get tossed around without providing much background on it. In fact, the plot in general is poorly written, the pacing is either too slow or too fast (you know there's a problem with a spy thriller when you check the watch in the middle of an action scene to see how much time has passed). There are many expositions and cut-aways to show what's going on while the main characters are doing their shtick, but these just serve to confuse the viewer and slow down the pact of the movie. Other than a gripping scene in a laboratory, none of the action scenes succeeded in being memorable or tense.

But by far my biggest problem with this film is how unnecessary it is for the trilogy. Its goal is to show us the repercussions of Bourne's actions in the original trilogy, and introduce new characters who will carry the franchise forward, but "Bourne Legacy" does not advance the overall plot of the series in any meaningful way. It ends the same way that the third movie does (spoiler alert!) - the program has been exposed and now the media is all over it and there is a senate committee investigating it. What else do we learn? Only a bit more thorough explanation as to how the program succeeded in creating super agents, and a bit more background on the scientists involved in the program. That's about it. If this film was meant to be a reboot - it didn't feel like it as it required too much prior knowledge. If this film was meant to be a sequel - it didn't succeed either because it doesn't advance the plot or the characters from previous movies. Bourne Legacy was a competent, but ultimately thrill-less thriller.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Big Three Oh

Wow, today I turn 30. If this was 400-500 years ago, that'd be somewhat of an accomplishment for a big chunk of the human race. Still, it's quite a landmark for me as well, so I want to reflect on what I've achieved in the part, and what I want to do with my next decade.

But before I get to that, there are many people I need to thank. I have the most wonderful family in the world (that's just like my opinion, man). They are utterly selfless, good, kind, and decent people, and a constant source of inspiration and pride for me. Without their support I wouldn't be where I am today, and no one is more precious to me than my family and my wife Julie. She is always supportive of my endeavours no matter how crazy, large or small they may be. I can always count on her to give me her honest opinion, and to really listen to me when I need to get something off my chest. A big shout out to Julie's family as well - they're also wonderful people who always give me support and respect (and the use of the fabulous swimming pool!). I have to say a big thank you to all my friends, no matter how far-flung. I'm very very lucky to be surrounded by so many generous, funny, intelligent and interesting people, whom I can count on. You know who you are - and if you don't, just assume I'm including you with the awesome crowd, because you are all awesome! Never change!

Well, as a reflection, I think I've done well for myself. There's room for improvement, but not too shabby for a level 30 commoner!
- I found someone I love and who loves me back and she even entered into a legally binding quasi-religious contractual partnership with me!
- I managed to complete three university degrees (and have the student loan to prove it!). It was a period of tremendous personal, intellectual and professional growth, and I'm damn proud of myself for having achieved this.
- Not only did I graduate, but I actually found work I really like and that I'm good at in my field! Sure, I might have bad days, but overall I love being a teacher!
- Over the last ten years I think I grew a lot as a person. I've become a lot more self-confident, more social, less reticent, more mature.
- I made a ton of friends that I hope will be a part of my life for many more years to come
- I've worked many many different jobs (more than most people I would wager) in many different fields, and while not all have been equally good, all have given me new perspectives on life and work, and really have been a learning experience.

So what's next? What's in store for the next decade?
- I hope that my family will continue expanding, I look forward to little nieces and nephews, and maaaaaaaaybe some of my own. :)
- I hope to continue developing my teaching career and finally become either a public school teacher or open my own school down the line

- I hope to finally be able to drive. I know it might sound weird, but for a longest time I've had this huge fear of driving. I've been slowly overcoming it, and this year I've taken driving school and hope to pass my driving test. When I do, that'll be a big load off my chest.
- I will finally finish writing a novel I start. I've written short stories, flash fictions, gaming material (some of which was published), editorials and whatnot, but I really would like to finish a novel. I don't even care about it getting published, I just want to write one as a personal achievement (there is one for writing a novel on Steam, right?)
- I hope to finally be able to buy a house, preferably in the country
- I will take better care of my health (and have already started on that), so I can enjoy all of the above!
- And I will finally finish David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest", re-read Tolstoy's "War and Peace", and hopefully be able to read the end of "A Song of Ice and Fire" by the time I'm 40! Come on Martin, you gotta finish the series before HBO show's seasons catch up!

And that's all folks!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Gun control

This is a list of mass shootings in the U.S. since 2005. This list is 62 pages long, and has over 200 entries. 62 pages of senseless violence all too often perpetrated by emotionally and/or mentally disturbed people with easy access to firearms. Most of these shootings were committed using a legally held firearm. In 2007, guns murdered 468 people in Australia, England, Germany and in Canada put together, and 9,484 in the United States (link here). I suspect that Canada probably has the same percentage of disturbed people as the U.S., but far less gun violence thanks to our laws. I hope that the recent tragedy in Denver will spark a serious debate about the value of the Second Amendment, and the perceived "need" of citizens to be able to arm themselves.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Brussels and closing thoughts

Brussels is in many ways a very different city from the rest of the Low Countries' cities I've visited. For one thing it's a lot more French. For another it's quite a lot busier (about as busy as Antwerpen I would say). It also lacks canals and has a much steeper terrain, so expects the walks around Brussels to be a bit tougher. It is a wonderful destination in many ways, whether for culture and museums, shopping, sightseeing, or cuisine. It is a dream location for anyone with a sweet tooth as Brussels is known for its waffles and gourmet chocolates. It is also a comic book fan's dream, but only if you read French.

A quick note about Brussels is that there is an inner Brussels (called the Pentagon) which is the downtown and the historical centre, and the outer Brussels - which despite being more residential and modern also has quite a lot to see. Brussels is also a sprawling city, although it may not be immediately obvious, and some locations might require the use of public transportation to be reached. In the outer Brussels, a couple of interesting locations to see is the Horta Museum and the Atomium and Mini-Europe. The Horta Museum is dedicated to the talented architect Victor Horta who launched the Art Nouveau movement, built some of Brussels' most recognizable landmarks, and without whom Art Deco probably would not have occurred. His restored house is an interesting design museum and an opportunity to see how late 19th century well-off people lived. It is located on 25 rue Americaine, Saint-Gilles (one of Brussels' 19 municipalities), but is only open from 2 to 5. Just a couple of steps away from it is a terrific eatery called Comptoir des Ogres. The food and the service are terrific and the prices are amazing. I highly recommend it. The Atomium is a huge iron molecule with a museum inside, and adjoining it is the Mini-Europe which has models of Europe's most famous buildings. It's pretty neat overall.

The boy who urinates in public is behind me!
In downtown there are way too many interesting sights to list, so I'll just mention a few worth seeing. Definitely check out the Grand Place - you can't miss it, and it's quite striking. Also the Ommegang (more on that in a bit) and the flower carpet events take place here. A really interesting and beautiful church is the Notre-Dame de Sablon, and the district of Sablon around it is also great for fancy antique shops, good brasseries (A La Mort Subite - "Sudden Death" - is supposed to be particularly good), and sightseeing in general. In the Notre-Dame de Chapelle church, which is also quite beautiful (and is free to enter), is the resting place of Pieter Brueghel (the elder). Another church that's easy to miss, but is definitely worth a visit is the Notre-Dame de Bon Secours - it's a smaller but wonderful ecumenical church, with a marvellous organ and very interesting interior. While walking around inner Brussels check out the Manneken Pis - the pissing boy. Some very good waffle places nearby too. Also worth visiting is the Galerie Saint-Hubert - one of Europe's first grand shopping arcades. It's really beautiful, a convenient shortcut, and has very fancy (but pricy) stores. It also has an exit on the famous Rue des Bouchers - a famous restaurant street. Even if you're not hungry go visit it! It's quite an experience!

For museums there's the afore-mentioned Horta museum, but there are others as well. The biggest one - and the absolutely-positively-not-to-be-missed on - is the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (the one W. H. Auden wrote about). It's a huge museum, marvellous and very eclectic collection, and is also adjoined by museum dedicated to surrealist artist Rene Magritte. Both are free on the first Wednesday of every month (from 1 PM onward). Another really interesting museum is the archeological dig beneath the royal square which can be accessed at the tourist information centre. The MIM (Museum of musical instruments) is amazingly beautiful - built by Victor Horta - but I didn't go inside. I hear it's very interesting though and you can hear how the instruments actually sound, it's supposed to have the largest collection of medieval musical instruments. Another museum I have to mention is the CBBD - the museum of comic books. Also located in a building designed by Horta and amazingly beautiful inside, it's a really interesting museum, has an excellent cafe and a comic book shop inside as well. It's a bit of a walk from the centre of the city but totally worth it. Speaking of comic book shops, Brussels has a bevy of comic book shops! Two of the best ones (I tried to check out each one I came across) is the BD-World shop and cafe (yeah, you can get comic books, eat dessert and drink beer all in one place!) located at 8 Place du Grand Sablon. Another very good one (better selection, but a lot more chaotic and no beer or desserts) is Le Depot BD located on 120 Chee D'Ixelles, and almost across the street from it is a huge manga shop (I forgot the name though).

The Ommegang
Brussels is best visited during the first week of July. For most of the first week the city becomes a huge Ren Faire as it gears up for the Ommegang! The Ommegang (literally Walk Around) is a huge celebration and historical parade (about 1400 participants - all volunteers) that takes place in historical spots throughout inner Brussels, culminating with two processions and spectacles in the Grand Place on Wednesday and Friday (they start letting people in at 8, but it doesn't start until 9). Good seats (they erect big stands for the public) go fast, so get tickets in advance. It's an amazing event celebrating the visit of Emperor Charles V to Brussels about 500 years ago, and it is not to be missed! Other events that happen during the week of Ommegang include jousting, historical dinner, various Ren Faire style events, and food and souvenirs stalls (if swords and chainmail and heraldic shields can be considered souvenirs). Definitely do not miss it if travelling to Brussels in the summer!

Okay, some final thoughts on the trip and what I would advise any traveller visiting the same locations:
- reserve rooms in advance, otherwise you end up paying nearly double for the roomss
- splurge on hotels in the centres of the cities (except for Bruges) and save on public transportation and the time needed for transportation, that way you have more time to actually enjoy the destination rather than enjoy the tramways, subways, and buses. In Bruges on the other hand, try to go for a hotel that's further away from the centre. You'll save a lot of money and you can bike or walk around the town more that way
- Wear very comfortable shoes. Ladies, avoid heels - all of these cities are stone-paved and are not heel-friendly at all!
- Watch your step. While Dutch cities tend to be quite clean, Antwerpen, Bruges and especially Brussels share an unfortunate trait with Paris - there's dog shit everywhere. Be careful near corners and near trees especially.
- In Ghent be aware that finding a place to sit down and eat that is not a fast food place is difficult between noon and 6-7 PM
- One thing I noticed is that ATMs are harder to find than in North America, and more places are cash only than here. Carry cash but do it safely - I've heard one or two pickpocket tales, but muggings are rare.
- In the summer plan for mild weather, with frequent showers. Umbrellas are quite cheap there so you don't have to bring your own, and some hotels will even lend you an umbrella.
- Brasserie (essentially a pub) will serve food and alcohol, but in Belgium brasseries will serve food only for lunch and dinner, most of the day they are only watering holes. So while it may LOOK like there are a ton of  places to eat, in reality it may not be so easy to find a spot to sit down and eat. That's mostly a problem in Belgium though, in Amsterdam we never had a problem finding a spot to eat. There are plenty of fast-food places and shawarma joints around if you need a quick bite though. Also for some reason the Dutch are obsessed with Burger King - they're everywhere!
- Tap water is perfectly safe to drink just about everywhere in Holland and Belgium. Skip buying water bottles, bring or buy a container and fill it up at the hotel instead.
- Tipping is customary - this is not UK. However, it is typically done not by percentage the way it's common in North America, but is usually a 1 to 5 euro tip regardless of the establishment. Oh and prices in restaurants and shops already include taxes, so what you see on the price tag is what you pay. In Belgium, however, there is some kind of curious tax that visitors must pay at hotels - it's a very small amount but it is NOT listed in the room price. So if you see it added on, don't panic and don't accuse the hotel of trying to scam you - it's 100% legit.

OK, that's it for now! It is good to be home, but I'm already considering some future destinations to visit. I'm thinking London, northern Italy or Barcelona!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ghent impressions

Sint-Bavo as seen from the belfry
Just a short post owing to lack of time (ommelgang celebration in Brussels in an hour!) and because I only spent about half a day and a night in Ghent. There are surely many more sights to see and places to visit in Ghent, but I'm pretty confident that for tourist purposes all that Ghent has to offer could be reliably seen in a day. I began my visit near the St. Michael's church in the historical centre of Ghent, but the church was closed that day so I didn't go inside. The Sint-Michelsbrug (bridge) leads from the church to the proper historical, religious and tourist centre of Ghent. There are immediately a few of the key tourist locations to see, conveniently grouped together: the Sintniklaaskerk (church of Saint Nicholas), the city's belfry, the Sint-Baafskathedral (Saint Bavo's cathedral), and the Stadhuis (the city hall), as well as other assorted medieval and renaissance buildings. Sintniklaaskerk is a very imposing and beautiful church from the inside, but there is nothing to see there other than the stained glass windows, architecture, the stone work, and a dizzying view up into the interior of the church's tower. I took a few pictures (admission is free, but not allowed during service and on Sundays) and that was it. Sint-Baaf is much more interesting because the entrance is free, there is a gorgeous and very interesting modern religious art exhibit inside, and of course one of the wonders of medieval Europe - the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altar by the Van Eycks. It is breathtakings... To see the altar and the very interesting crypts of the cathedral costs only 4 euros, so I highly recommend it. Don't forget to take the free audio-tour for the altar to get the maximum effect. Immediately after Sint-Baaf I visited the square where the Stadhuis is located, and then took the climb up the belfry. It's not free (6 euros), and you can climb all the way up, or climb about a third of the way up and then take the elevator. On the way you can check out the bells, the Big Roland (enormous bell) and the city's dragon. This centuries-old dragon statue was taken down and replaced with a more recent replica but the original is on display in the belfry. Speaking of which, the view from the top is amazing! Totally worth the climb and the admission price, but not for those who are afraid of heights. It is VERY tight and windy up there.

Jesus prays over beers at Dulle Griet
After catching my breath from the belfry trip I took a short walk on Graslei street by the canal and took a canal trip. Honestly it was a big disappointment. It is far less interesting than the Amsterdam and Bruges boat rides, just as expensive and shorter. Skip it and just walk around the northern part of the historic quarter including the glowering grey Gravensteen castle (inside is a museum of medieval relics, weapons and torture instruments plus a tour of the castle walls), the tiny restaurant streets, and the Ghent museum of design. There, you've seen the major Ghent tourist sites and saved 8 euros. Afterwards my father and I decided to look for a place to eat, and that turned out to be a challenge. Be warned! In Ghent proper restaurants are closed until 6 or 7, and brasseries (bars basically) and fast food (whether chains or street food vendors) are the only sources of food for tourists. Also, very few places have menus in English unlike Antwerp, Amsterdam, the Hague or Bruges, and I also found that the locals don't really like the tourists much compared to these other places. Could just be my experience though. Good food can be had at Vrijdagmarkt at reasonable prices (again, no English menus), but the real attract at Vrijdagmarkt was the "Dulle Griet". No, not the Brueghel painting (although named after it). This is an amazing pub, for its selection of beers (over 250 Belgian beers, plus a variety of German, Dutch and English beers), its nice atmosphere (beer kegs used for tables, tapestries cover the walls and ceilings), friendly staff, and awesome prices. Be sure to try their Kwak - it's beer poured into an exceptionally tall glass that you need a special wooden frame to hold on to; by the end the only way to finish it safely is to chug it. The catch is that you have to give the pub staff your shoe (right or left, doesn't matter) that they deposit into a basket which is then pulled up to the ceiling using a winch. You don't get the shoe back until the Kwak is finished and the staff is adamant about it! The shoe is returned to its inebriated owner with the ringing of a bell and much pomp afterwards. Anyway, that's pretty much Ghent. I didn't visit any museums there, but there aren't any museums that interest me there anyway, however, if design and modern art are your thing then visit Ghent's museum of modern art (SMAK) and the Ghent museum of design. SMAK recently reopened and is supposed to be quite a sight inside. Meanwhile I'm finishing my trip in Brussels!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Haarlem, Antwerpen, Bruges

Haarlem's windmill then and now
Not getting enough of smaller-scale Holland, we headed to Haarlem, home of the original globetrotters. Not really, but a wonderful 'little' town (it's actually 150,000 inhabitants strong). We arrived quite early, avoiding the throngs of tourists. It's a very picturesque town, but many of its streets look no different from Amsterdam. Unfortunately the town's main attraction - the Sint Bavo cathedral - was closed for service. I still managed to get a few shots of the interior before being ushered out, but keep that in mind if you're visiting on a Sunday. We walked around for perhaps an hour, but ultimately there was not much to do on a Sunday - all the locals were sleeping or in church and everything was closed. Plan accordingly.

After spending about an hour in Haarlem we headed to Antwerpen (I'll use its native name here). On short impression Antwerpen is a very busy city, almost unpleasantly so. It could just be that it was Sunday though. It is a very beautiful city, but it's in a somewhat greater state of disrepair than Amsterdam. Tremendous 18th century architecture and superb selection of shops for everyone on the central Lange Nieuwe Straat, but again - very thick crowds too. The big central attraction is the Cathedral of Our Lady. An amazing cathedral that took about 170 years to build and some of the most intricate Gothic stone work anywhere. No photography is allowed and the admission price is steep. It's quite something though. The Grote Markt (great market) square is very picturesque as well, the guild houses are very impressive (corporate skyscrapers of 15th-16th centuries). We headed down to the museum of fine arts but after some fruitless walking it turned out that it was closed indefinitely for renovations and most of its collection cannot be viewed. So we headed to the Rubenshuis - house of Rubens - it really should be included in every visit to Antwerp! First of all, the tickets get you admission to both Rubenshuis and the very interesting museum of Mayer van den Bergh for just 1 Euro extra. Rubenshuis is extremely intersting for seeing both how a very rich 17th century person lived, the paintings by Rubens you won't see anywhere else, and Rubens' own collection of Italian, Flemish and ancient Greek and Roman art. Plus it's a stunning building. The van den Bergh museum is likewise unusual (it's also in a multi-story mansioin), and houses very interesting collection of medieval art, modern art, and Breugel! Breugel's famous "Mad Mag" painting is here, as are his book illustrations - you won't see them anywhere else. Overall Antwerpen has a lot more to offer if you want to shop a lot, or if you are into modern art (the MUHKA museum of modern art is supposed to be great), but we only spent a few hours here.

The first stock exchange ever
Make a note right now: if you're driving in Belgium it is not good to be driving on fumes! Service stations are: a) closed on Sundays, b) non-existant outside of towns. After a nerve-wrecking drive around the (very picturesque) countryside we were able to locate a gas station in the nick of time and proceeded onward to Bruges. After being delayed by cows heading home and blocking the traffic we finally arrived. Bruges is well Bruges. It is like a dream you can't forget. It shares much architecturally with all the preceding cities but  there is something very unique about it. If you're staying in Bruges consider staying at Hotel Adornes. It's one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in. The best times to walk around in Bruges are in the evining and early morning, it is quiet, drowsy and devoid of tourist hordes. Walk around the entire city - it's really not that big, but packed with interesting spots to see. Avoid any restaurants or shops in the centre of the city like the Black Plague (it's not too soon to make this joke right?) - you can save up to 20 Euroes by taking a 15 minute walk to the outskirts of the town instead. Plus you can check out neat little streets, windmills and old city gates. Definitely come back to the centre of the city around 9. Start in the beautiful market square, and check out the Bruges Belfry. We couldn't make the climb, it was still closed, but the lineup to go up the stairs is usually huge by day, so make sure to be there around 10 to get in quickly. Instead we headed to the Cathedral of Our Lady, another amazing cathedral, this one made more so by Michelangelo's world-famous Madonna and Child, as well as really interesting medieval wall paintings, the painting by Caravagio, and resting places of Charles V (the bold) and his daughter Mary. Honestly though, this church has made the greatest impression, I've felt something close to a religious experience.

After exiting the church, definitely check out the most picturesque bridge in Bruges to the left of the exit (had to wait a while for other tourists to pass), the open-air market (some very good prints there), the beautiful old city hall and to its right the church of Holy Blood - which is supposed to literally have a drop of Jesus' blood. It's taken out once a day at 11:30 I think, but even if you aren't there to see the event visit the church anyway. It is very beautiful and more intimate than gothic cathedrals. Finally, if in the mood for shopping Bruges does offer very fine chocolatiers and of course the Belgian specialty - lace! The best place for price and quality (hand-made, not machine-made) is Paul Lauver's Maison Pickery. There was a lot more to see in Bruges, but we pressed on to Ghent. I will definitely come back to Bruges though!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Amsterdam Day 3, the Hague, and Volendam

Since I was too tired to post impressions of day 3, it'll have to be now instead and be relatively short. Yesterday we visited the Rijksmuseum, which is located maybe 10 minutes from the hotel. It is a lovely and imposing building, even though it's being renovated right now. The museum itself is unfortunately half as big as it usually is due to these renovations. Still, the exhibit of famed Dutch ceramics, silver and gold ware, historical artifacts (weapons, costumes, etc), and most importantly the classic Dutch painters on display is still impressive. It's well worth a visit considering that some of Rembrandt's, Vermeer's, and Jan Steen's famous paintings are on display. The Night Watch is really quite something seen live... but there are other gems as well. Vermeer's Milkmaid is lovely, as are the rest of Rembrandt's paintings on display, and I also quite liked Adriaen van de Venne's Fishing for Souls painting. Almost forgot, photographing paintings is allowed sans flash, which is quite a big deal.

After the Rijksmuseum we stopped at an excellent antiquariat and print shop that I highly recommend to everyone visiting Amsterdam. It's called Antiquariaat Hoogkamp, located at Spiegelgracht 27s and they have a website here. Honestly, skip buying fancy prints at museum shops and check it out - the variety and quality (and prices) are excellent. Afterwards we went for a walk in the Jordaan distrtict. It has nothing to do with Jordan, but is rather a Dutch way of pronouncing French word "jardin" - garden. This is a bohemian art district, and it's instantly obvious. There's an art studio literally on every block (sometimes more), more street music, and the shopping is far more interesting than the usual tourist traps in the centre of the city - check out these awesome knitted kyrgyz hats. It's also a very scenic and colourful walk and a very interesting neighbourhood to visit, so I highly recommend it. For eating we were very satisfied with this place - Amigo grill. A grand walk to visit all the remaining major sights in the core of Amsterdam concluded the day. We finally checked out the other famous churches, the royal palace, and some other sights. By the way, the New Church is very beautiful inside, but is far less interesting from a story point of view than the Old Church and the admission price is highway robbery. At the end of the day, we decided to try authentic (I hope it was anyway) Dutch cuisine at De Blauwe Hollander and it was really quite good. But by the end of the day I felt like a change of scenery was needed.

For such a small country Holland contains an infinity of spaces. The green stretches to the horizon interspersed only with gleaming canals and thick copses of threes. The sea likewise stretches into the gray haze. Unobstructed by buildings of the cities and towns, the flat lines of Netherlands stretch into nothingness. It makes even a simple drive through the countryside more beautiful than it ought to seem. The enormous modern windmills and the quaint classic Dutch windmills aside, the countryside is very nice - the transition from a city to the country is very abrupt though. Blink and you miss it. Our destination was the Hague. On first impression it is a more outwardly modern city than Amsterdam, a lot more office buildings and high-rises on the outskirts. The city core, despite having more modern buildings than Amsterdam, still retains its older charms. Although we initially wanted to visit the Mauritshuis museum where an excellent collection of Vermeer, van Dyck, Jan Steen, Rubens, and Rembrandt is kept, we were delayed by the Netherlands' Veterans' Day parade, due to which all the museums were closed in the morning! So we wandered around the old city core, got to see the other royal palace (more medieval and more pretty than the one in Amsterdam), the royal stables (the size and magnificence and age of which put our Parliament building to shame), the Peace Palace (where the International Court of Justice tribunal sits), and some other interesting spots. The Hague is a very stately city, quieter than Amsterdam, with somewhat less canals but no less ubiqutous bicyclists, more spread out and interesting in its own right. It reminded me of Ottawa quite a lot. The parade was quite interesting and good spirited, and there were Air Force fly-bys and we got to see (from a distance) Prince of Holland, but started to drag on. Visiting the Mauritshuis again we discovered that it's actually closed for renovations until 2014 and that Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is actually on display closer to home - in United States' Finck museum. The rest of the exhibit was moved to the Gemeentemuseum - so go there instead if you are in the Hague. The exhibit was quite impressive even without Vermeer, and included some more modern artists like Kandinsky. It's well worth it.

After the Hague our last destination of the day was a large fishing village (a town would be more appropriate) of Volendam, famed for its fresh and salted seafood (and really the gastronomic reason was our only reason for visiting). It is, however, a lovely spot and a chance to see how the less urbanized Dutch people live (short version - nicely). The Marina is very nice and the North Sea is - well - a sea, if you're into that sort of thing. The best smoked fish is to be had from street vendors rather than the pricier restaurants. Since much of Holland is within 1-2 hours of driving from Amsterdam, you don't feel like you're missing out on visiting Important Tourist Locations by stopping at smaller and equally nice less-visited places. Tomorrow a long trip to possibly Antwerp and Haarlem, and ultimately Bruge!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Amsterdam Day 2

Anne Frank house (the shorter one with the white roof) as seen
from the boat
No visit to Amsterdam should go without a canal trip. Most of them leave from a spot near Konings Plein, and the price for a 1 hour excursion is very reasonable. Go early in the morning, that way your boat will be mostly empty (like mine was). If you are willing to spend more you can even hire yourself a small boat with a driver who will double as your tour guide. If you are feeling adventurous you can even hire a canal bike and pedal down the canals. The tour is really great though, I got to see many landmarks from this perspective, the tour itself was entertaining (apparently three cars a week end up in the canals every week due to poor parking), the Amsterdam house boats (and garden boats, and workshop boats, and museum boats, and the decrepit-boats-that-double-as-duck-nests boats) are very neat. Anyway, the canal trip is cool, take it if you get the chance!

After the canal trip we went on another long walk and ended up walking through the Red District. It's actually rather tame during the late morning, just a little more trash than the rest of the city. Architecturally though it's as picturesque as the rest of Amsterdam. On a whim we went into the Old Church. Admission is not free, but it is cheap, and was totally worth it! The church is absolutely stunning inside! During the Reformation, the Amsterdam Calvinists went a little nuts smashing and dismembering the Catholic pageantry inside the church, but they stopped short of smashing the magnificent organ or the stained glasses. Actually, a Catholic church devoid of most of its gilded trappings is very interesting - you get to see the bones of the building so to speak. It's being renovated so some of the stained glasses are not on display, but it's still really interesting. Speaking of interesting, the floor of the church are all tombstones going back 700 years (35 generations lie buried in the church). So you're literally walking on dead people, all of them the rich and/or famous citizens of Amsterdam. Also, if you're observant you'll see that some tombstones bear mysterious markings (or maybe these are just acronyms), including what looks to be alchemical or kabbalistic signs. Or maybe I've watched too much Indiana Jones and read too much of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

Anyway, afterward we popped into the Hermitage Amsterdam museum. It's is a sort-of extension of the famous Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, and its collection gets changed twice a year. I've seen most of what they had this time around when I was in the actual Hermitage, but it might be worth visiting again in the future. Another small museum that's very interesting is the Rembrandt house, it's restored to the time when Rembrandt lived in it, and it contains some of Rembrandt's sketches, letters, and assorted knick-knacks. After some more picturesque walking we finally arrived at our ultimate destination - the Van Gogh museum. It's not just Van Gogh there though, there is also a collection of paintings by his friends and contemporaries, very interesting collection of late 19th/turn of the century posters, illustrations and lithographs, and the Japanese ukiyo-e prints that Van Gogh brothers collected. Word of warning though, the line-up is quite long, either go there early in the day or obtain an advance pass. There are museum passes being sold in most hotels and tourist shops that let you skip the line. If time is off the essence, it might be worth it, especially as regular admission to Van Gogh and Rijkmuseum is not cheap.

The day concluded on a sour note as Germany lost to Italy 0-2. Going out to watch the game was fun though, huge crowds, very boisterous, looking forward to watching the final game (although by then I'll be either in the Hague or in Bruges). Today looks like it's raining most of the day, so I'll be indoors in Rijksmuseum most of the day! Rembrandt ftw!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Amsterdam Day 1

A view of Central Station and portion of Damplatz
First day in Amsterdam (more like half day, first few hours were spent in the airport, and jetlag is about to claim the remaining evening hours. What follows is a confused, sleep-deprived, rambling first impression of the city.

It is by far the busiest, most crowded, relaxed place on earth. I don't know if it's the tourist crowd, or the presence of so many byciclists, or something in the air (more on that soon), but it's a very relaxed place. Traffic is a snarl, pedestrians step aside to let a tramway rattle down the street, byciclists are brazen lords of creation dominating the lanes, and pedestrians happy to ignore most designated crossings. It's dizzying and a little nerve-wracking at first, but I gradually got used to it.

Gastronomically (I was starving so looking for sustenance was a major preoccupation), Amsterdam seems to be dominated by Burger Kings, a local cafe chain, and for some reason Argentinian in specific, and Latin American restaurants in general. The Indonesian cousine for which Amsterdam is supposed to be famous for is present, but in less amounts than I was led to believe. Lots of Italian places too. You have to order bitterballs - a Dutch delicacy. It's like a spicy meat falafel - delicious! Prices on food everywhere I looked have been very reasonable even with the current Euro-CAD exchange rate. Ignore the area around Damplatz, and Leidseplein, and eating in Amsterdam will be cheap and excellent. Leidseplein has a lot of restaurants but they tend to be either chains or aforementioned glut of Latin American and Italian restaurants.

Went on a three hour walk around the city, it's beautiful and there is a ton more to see. Every street seems to hold a dozen neat places at least. Like this amazing Art Deco/Art Nouvelle movie theatre (above). Yes, it's still a movie threatre today. So much of downtown looks like it would've 400 years ago in the Golden Age of Amsterdam. The fronts of  buildings enter right on the canals, while protruding cranes seem ready to reach down onto the waiting barges and winch up furniture or bales of goods from far-off exotic places. Each building seems to hold some interesting detail waitingto be uncovered by a patient observer. Also, I'm not sure what the deal is, but some older buildings appear to be leaning forward... On purpose it would seem. The effect can be a tad disconcerting but neat.

Despite the initially dangerous-seeming traffic, Amsterdam is a very pedestrian-friendly city, and the air is very clean! Walking in downtown Toronto right now would probably induce asthma. The only exception to the quality of air is the cigarette and pot smoke. More people smoke outside than I am used to, and the smell of pot is pretty pervasive in some parts of downtown. Yes, coffeeshops and various pot smoking paraphenalia is everywhere, on major thoroughfares and pedestrian arcades alike. I stopped noticing them after a while, but the air pollution produced by purveyors of such places is unmistakable. The city is very clean save for cigarette butts, kind of a weird juxtaposition.

All hail our Segways overlords!
OK, I'm starting to wax verbose, and I'm heading to bed! Tomorrow, hitting three or four museums, and another walk of the city!

P.S. Segways everywhere! What would be the plural cognomen of Segways? A clutch of Segways? A lean of Segways? A hilarity of Segways?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Classroom of the Future... tomorrow!

Spurred on by Margaret Wente's shrill diatribe against teachers and their unions in Ontario (not wholly undeserved - I could say two or fifty unpleasant things about the Ontario College of Teachers), and by the end of the school year, I started thinking about what would an effective classroom look, say, 7 years from now. A lot of this is going to be generalizations though, but I think the numbers bear out. So given that:
- the supposed purpose of education is to provide valuable skills and knowledge to the new generation
- the costs of education per student are going up, while enrollment is actually slowly decreasing, and education is consistently the second highest portion of government spending not just in Ontario but across Canada
- education is seen as being vital to a 'successful' career
- teenagers are busier than ever with part time jobs, community hours, trying to find internships to help with business/pre-law/pre-med/etc. applications
- all phones will be equivalent to today's cutting-edge smartphones
- Internet access will be ubiquitous (it might be heavily censored in the future, but at least access to it will be a given in Canada)
... I think that the current model of education will be dangerously unsustainable and counter-productive in every way. The province is already trying to cut $70 million this year in under-used schools (see link above), and this number will only increase in the future even as class sizes increase. Education as it is right now is unsustainable. It is unsustainable economically, it is unsustainable environmentally (the cost of power, the cost of fuel to transport students to the school, the tremendous waste of supplies created by ever school, cost of constant renovations), and it will soon become unsustainable morally.

"Wait, what?!" Hear me out. Schools no longer have a monopoly on information for young people, nor do they any longer have much of a moral ground when it comes to teaching some kind of objective knowledge and giving useful skills. Maybe up to a certain point (say Grade 6 or 8) the institutional, structured, orderly classroom is preferable, but afterward the students are wasting time and potential. I'm not talking just about gifted students, I'm talking about students in general. The only reasons the lesson periods are as long as they are is because we (education system and society) need to: a) keep them from 9 to 3, b) because the classes are damn big and much of the lesson gets lots in the static and needs to be repeated. The high school years as they are structured now are a big waste, and the amount of time spent on transmitting the curriculum requirements into their fragile young minds can be condensed. Even if we keep 12-grade system, the amount of time per grade could be reduced without sacrificing quality. Assuming that we are willing to do some radical changes, that is.

So here we go, let's put our futurology hats on:
- Education needs to be far more virtual and distributed than it is now. Rote memorization of knowledge in the age of ubiquitous internet access and smartphones is laughably obsolete. A smartphone with net access is for most intents and purposes a crude exocortex memory. The age of polymaths and encyclopaedics is over - you can either be an expert in a very specific field, or you can know a little about a lot of things and depend on freely accessed knowledge for anything that requires greater detail. What we really need to focus on is the development of research, search and analysis skills. We assume that young'uns today are super-duper tech savvy because they spend so much time on their damn phones, but nothing is further from the truth. I can do things with browsers, spreadsheets, word processors, or PowerPoints that leaves their mouths gaping, and I'm not even especially computer-literate.
- To make education more virtual and distributed than it is now, reverse classrooms need to be implemented widely, from Grade 9 on. What is a reverse classroom? The teacher posts the lesson in the form of a document, a YouTube video or podcast (typically 20-30 minute length), Smarttech lesson, etc. online and assigns work related to the lesson. The students watch/read the lesson on their own, and come to class to work on their homework, assignments, or get further assistance from a teacher. Only we need to gradually push the envelope further. The work can also be completed online - a simple bot could watch the completion of work and compile a report for the teacher on which students did their work and in what time. What does the teacher do with the rest of his/her time? Well...
- The class sizes will become bigger. That is inevitable as the governments (witness McGuinty's slow about-face on teacher wages going on right now) will reduce education expenses. With reverse classrooms, however, the class sizes will approach mid-range university classes (40-50 students per teacher). The teacher, however, will spend most of his/her time evaluating work, preparing lessons, assisting with any inquiries, and facilitating. Facilitating what...?
- Student apprenticeships. This is not a new idea and indeed many schools already implement it, but rather stupidly only for those students who have no chance at all of academic success. Well, we should replace those community hours (so many of which end up being faked anyway) with meaningful and varied apprenticeships. Build a professional online network of Ministry-of-Education-approved local businesses in each school area. Let students have a large degree of freedom when selecting their apprenticeships, let them try out a different job every month, maybe even hold bidding competitions on who gets what position.
- A typical student day might be something like getting up in the morning, checking messages from guild members (read on!), teachers, heading off for a few hours of apprenticeship. While on the way, listen to a lesson or two, fire off a couple of questions or quick homework. After work meet up with guildies online or IRL, raid some lessons (OK OK, I'll get to it in a second), complete the work. Once or twice a week come to progress meetings with the teacher, or remote in.

Alright, so here's my crazy/maybe-revolutionary idea of the day. Education needs to start taking cues from the psychology behind social networks, facebook games, and Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs). All three of these are so wildly successful because:
a) we connect to other people and we can share our success and brag about it
b) the tasks are broken down into small incremental steps, and the completion of each step rewarded with small but increasing rewards
c) as rewards increase, so does the difficulty
d) they create a community built around common interests and goals
I think it's all too plain how the MMO/social network can apply to education. The requirement for teamwork and cooperation and social learning is already written in the curriculum, but it's not very meaningful in the current homework. Students can complete work in short bursts, with each successful completion opening up new challenges, but also rewards. What rewards? Maybe preferential bids on apprenticeship gigs, grades, whatever. Even money (see the effect financial rewards have on grades - heck universities and colleges already do so with bursaries and scholarships)! So while the overall grades and performance of the student will be assessed on an individual basis, progression through curriculum and additional perks will be possible through social interaction and actual teamwork. Heck, plug in augmented reality eventually and it will really be like something out of science fiction!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Unevenly distributed future

I am only 130 pages in "The Makers" by Cory Doctorow (yes, that Cory Doctorow of the blogosphere fame), but it already might be the best book I've read in the last 6 months. No, wait, scratch that - 12 months (Kraken did come just about two years ago). There is a Big Idea on every page, it's bursting with enthusiasm, imagination, and - despite the outwardly bleak post-post-industrial after-the-Crash American setting - even optimistic book. It is crazy, intelligent and incisively funny in the way that Neal Stephenson's "Zodiac" or "Cryptonomicon" (it even deals with similar themes of entrepreneurship, startups, business ethics, futurism, social implications of technology, and wild crazy adventure), or Stross' Halting State were. I will have more to say about "The Makers" when I finish it, but at this current pace it'll be quite soon - I literally had to force myself to put it down today. Errrr, the students can do pre-exam review on their own, right?

P.S. Why so many links in this post to Amazon? No, I'm not shilling for Amazon (although if you're from Amazon and want to give me money I will not say no), but if you have not read any of these books you need to order them right now from Amazon, or your nearest public library, or your nearest mIRC portal and then put your life on hold until you read them!

P.P.S. Doctorow's book is already inspiring me to rant on a few topics. Expect more activity as the school year winds down and my free time goes up. Some of the upcoming topics may include:
- what will happen if all personal debt was erased overnight
- the new model of education
- political revolutions in fantasy
- lessons from this teaching year
- my European vacation!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"Will there be rabbits George?"

Haha! And you thought this blog was dead! You fools! It only rises again and again, stronger and stronger! (Or other Greyjoy words to that effect) I guess recently I've had more free mental time what with the school year winding down at all, and also more intellectual stimuli, so there are a few blog entries incoming, but today I want to talk about settings and setting the scenes in RPGs. That's of course a huge and nebulous topic, but I just want to throw out a couple of recent observations. Having recently taught Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" I remembered how much I love Steinbeck, much more so than Fitzgerald or Hemingway. There is real pathos, real emotion, and well - real reality, in his words. He is also adept at making a fictional setting as real as it can be in relatively few words, and there are a few lessons that Game Masters running a RPG can take away.

First of these is to not worry so much about verisimilitude when setting a game in a real-world location. What Steinbeck demonstrates so powerfully is that what matters is not getting every single tree, stone, and brook right, but getting the sense of the place right. Is Soledad Valley real? Yes. Is the ranch from "Of Mice and Men" real? No, but it might as well be because it is so believable and it fits with what knowledge and preconceptions we might have about ranches in southern California in 1920s and 1930s.

Secondly there are the descriptions in pre-made adventures. Normally I like pre-made adventures; they make my life easier by reducing prep time, they give me ideas, maps, and ready-made characters to use in other games. Most of them, however, commit the cardinal sin of poor descriptions. They are either extremely verbose in attempting to explain to the players not only what the scene looks like, but also where everything and everyone is in relation to players; or they are too sparse. I think the primary use of a scene description should be to establish the feel of the scene and the most evocative and important details and then get out of the way. If you need to explain to the players where specific details are in relation to them, use a map or wait for them to ask specific questions. Steinbeck does occasionally take a page to describe a place, but these are exceptions. He can establish a character's presence or the imagery of the scene in but a short paragraph, because Steinbeck realizes that he doesn't need to be Dickens.

Lastly, do not be afraid to use literary cliches to describe a scene. This is not to say that everything that comes out of GM's mouth should be a cliche (God knows I'm guilty of that often enough), but that cliches are cliches because they work. They act on our minds, evoking certain understanding and imagery that has been ingrained in our memory by media, literature, art, etc. They also work because cliches can quickly summarize an understanding that would otherwise take far more words to achieve. This applies to characters as well as settings and scenes obviously.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Vivaldi - the original headbanger

In the fine tradition of Chuck Norris jokes, here comes Vivaldi - the original pimp and headbanger of classical music! Top 10 fun facts about Vivaldi! (see note #1)

1. Vivaldi was the original headbanger. Listen to "La Follia" at 6:30 and 7:30 marks. Vivaldi was the Dragonforce of 18th century music scene.

2. Vivaldi was called the Red Priest. That's because he bathed in the blood of the lesser composers he had slain and absorbed their power.

3. Vivaldi became a priest because he ran out of women to screw.

4. Vivaldi was so physically hardcore half the population of Vienna was destroyed by spontaneous orgasm when he got there. They had to import women from the hottest capitals of Europe to replace the lost female population and sate Vivaldi's appetites.

5. When Vivaldi died, monks gathered his belongings. They then scoured the Earth for his reincarnation, letting little children play with some random crap mixed in with one item belonging to Vivaldi. Only a little boy in Salzburg unerringly picked up Vivaldi's violin and immediately started headbanging.

6. Bach gave all seven of his children Vivaldi as a middle name. That's how jealous he was.

7. "Four Seasons" is a misnomer. Because there is only one season. VIVALDI SEASON. (Thanks to Stefan for this one)

8. Vivaldi invented the electric mandolin 250 years earlier than everyone else thought possible; it's the only way he could take his music to the next level. It was powered by the power of his sheer will!

9. Recent re-discoveries of Vivaldi's work have finally been performed. It's called Bohemian Rhapsody.

10. Only Vivaldi could write a choir piece for an all-female choir with bass and tenor parts. FOR WOMEN. When people told Vivaldi it couldn't be done - he did it! He then impaled the unbelievers as a warning to the future generations not to doubt the power of Vivaldi!

Note #1: facts may not be facts at all

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John Carter of Earth, Mars, Pandora, Dancing With Wolves, and Middle Earth.

Just returned from watching Disney's "John Carter", based on Edgar Rice Burrough's Martian Chronicles books. Full disclosure - as a kid I devoured those novels, so I was not fazed in the slightest by the setting, the outdated premise, or the character names. Also, this will not be a comprehensive review, but rather a semi-rant about the plot follies - and I don't mean plot holes (there are aplenty), but rather the problems with the way the plot was written and developed.

Every story needs a plot. Most also require at least one subplot. Sometimes an author can deftly weave many subplots together and pull it off. Sometimes the work is dragged down by the weight of needless subplots into the bog of mediocrity. Sadly "John Carter" is a prime example of this. Let's get the good stuff out of the way - the movie is very pretty, the computer graphics are superb and are blatantly obvious in only a couple of scenes, the supporting cast is superb (seeing Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony from HBO's "Rome" series on a big screen was awesome), the male and female leads do a good job of looking pretty and heroic and convincing, the art direction and design are excellent, and the action scenes are competent.

Where the film fails is in the needlessly muddled plot and various subplots that bring the movie to needlessly tedious 2+ hours. The original Martian Chronicles were by no means subtle - the villains were villains, the heroes were heroes, the conflict was obvious, and it was all about rousing action, exotic vistas, nubile Martians, dastardly bad guys, and subtly effective humour. In other words, what Star Wars (heavily based on Martian Chronicles) and other (better) movies are made of. The film needlessly complicates the plot in many different ways. As all English teachers drone on from year to year - every story needs a conflict. Conflict is what creates a story. Otherwise nothing would happen. Let's count the conflicts in the Disney version (working from memory here):
- John Carter vs. mysterious aliens
- John Carter vs. savage yet somehow noble aliens
- John Carter vs. human-looking aliens
- John Carter vs. his troubled past and his guilt over losing his family
- John Carter vs. the United States of America
- John Carter vs. a scheming alien princess
- John Carter vs. himself (in this case over where he truly belongs - on Earth or Mars)
- John Carter involving his nephew in an improbable *REDACTED FOR SPOILERS*
- John Carter vs. giant apes
- John Carter vs. gravity
- Alien dude and his daughter vs. their tribe
- Alien princess vs. her father
- Alien princess vs. bad guy
- A three-way alien war
- Mysterious aliens vs. just about everyone else

OK, obviously some of these get resolved in a scene or two, but quite a few of these drag on for most of the movie, and are mostly irrelevant to the story as a whole or its resolution! Most of the subplots in "John Carter" do not move the main plot along, instead they meander away from it, slow down the film, confuse the audience, and are either dropped or resolved so abruptly that they might not have even happened in the first place.

The subplots seemed to have two major purposes in this film, the first being a justification for action scenes. Personally I thought the main plot - even if trimmed - would have provided plenty of opportunities for action scenes on its own, and probably would have provided opportunities for the same exact action scenes minus the time spent on developing and explaining the subplot. The second purpose was to cut away from the main action, give the supporting cast more screen time and give the main heroes more chances to whine about something. The result, however, is the needless increase in length, an actual decrease in tension (if the audience is fidgeting or falling asleep, chances are they will be confused once the main plot kicks back in), and angst. OK, I get it, nowadays having a straight-cut hero with little to no emotional baggage verges on a parody, but come on! In an action adventure flick like this one we want to see the heroes (and heroines - Deja Toris kicks serious butt in the film) act heroically not brood, self-recriminate, doubt themselves, and gush with insecurity (or at least not for very long). Leave all these things to the Prince of Denmark.

Anyway, the rant is pretty much over. "John Carter" is a film that would be enhanced by removing scenes, rather than adding more deleted scenes. I almost hope to see a DVD version of it that will actually redact the movie!