Friday, August 23, 2013

Even more boardgames!

Another couple of weeks have gone by, so I have had a chance to try out a few more boardgames in the meantime. So in no particular order:

Sentinels of the Multiverse
A fairly complex non-collectible card game, Sentinels of the Multiverse is not at all like the extremely popular deck building games (Dominion, Ascension, etc.) In Sentinels of the Multiverse, each player takes on a role of a superhero, all of which are thinly veiled DC and Marvel heroes. So there is a Batman type, Iron Man type, The Flash, and a few more original ones. The hero is represented by a deck, each card might be an action, a power, a piece of gear. The heroes are working together to defeat the villain, also represented by its own deck which cycles automatically - so it's very much a cooperative game. To complicate matters further, there is also an environment deck that might hinder or help the heroes and the villain. On each turn, a player can play a card, use a power (activate a card that's already in play) and draw two cards. The goal is to destroy the villain, which usually (but not always I believe) involves getting rid of his/her/its hit points. I definitely liked the art of the game, and the way the art and gameplay and card text reinforce the theme of the game - I had a lot of fun just kind of imagining the situations and the plot. On the other hand, it's hard to plan a strategy in this game due to the randomness of card draws, and new players (such as myself) will be uncertain of what their hero is capable of. Furthermore, the unfortunate truth about Sentinels of the Multiverse is that most of the time a player will be either spamming the same power every turn, or will pull off a dizzying chain of actions (some decks have cards that grant extra actions) that takes a while to resolve. It is still a fun game at times, but I'm not convinced that it is a good one.

Smash Up
Another card game we tried is Smash Up. In this game, each player selects two decks and smashes them together. So I played Russian bear cavalry dinosaurs, another player played Ninja Wizards, another player smashes aliens and faeries together - you get the idea. After each player creates his deck, four locations are revealed and the players attack these locations to score victory points, in the process destroying, stunning, or moving around their opponents' cards. The art is hilarious, the premise is silly in a good way, and the game is fairly easy to learn and can be played quickly. Because the maximum hand size is 10 (I think), some planning ahead is possible. However, once again, new players will be at somewhat of a loss as to what their decks can be capable of, and will be unsure of what their opponents' cards do. There is also not a great diversity of cards within each deck, so expect to play the same cards over and over again (I have how many robot velociraptors?!). Finally, it seemed to me that some decks just had an unfair advantage or could consistently outplay other decks - maybe it was just the smashups we tried, I'd need to play it more to be sure.

I love love love this game. It's so incredibly well designed, fun to play, and beautiful, with a great deal of replay value. In a nutshell Archipelago is a bit like a blend of Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Puerto Rico, and Game of Thrones. Phewph, that's a mouthful. What is actually is, is a game of exploration, worker and action placement, resource management and intrigue. Players explore an archipelago by placing huge hexagonal tiles which have resources and native huts on them. Native huts increase surplus population which makes buying workers cheaper, but also increases discontent. Players can use workers to harvest resources from the discovered tiles, or construct towns, ports, markets, and churches. The trick is that they can do so even on tiles that were explored by other players, and the other trick is that EVERYTHING can be traded in this game at any time. It may seem that other players are your competition, but then a crisis card gets drawn (yes, there are also cards) and suddenly everyone is scrambling to work together and trade resources to resolve a crisis, because if you don't then the number of rebels begin to grow. If the number of rebels is ever greater than the number of citizens constructed by the players, then EVERYONE LOSES. So you're working together after all? No! Because each player is given a secret card at the beginning of the game, each card has a condition for a game end and a secret winning objective. So you don't know what other players are trying to achieve, and to make things worse one of the players may secretly be a Sympathizer - if the rebels win, everyone loses EXCEPT the Sympathizer! He wins! The game creators call Archipelago a semi-cooperative game, and it very much is. There is no war, you can't construct armies, and yet the game is filled with tense intrigue, alliances and negotiations, and backstabbing. Plus, there are three different decks of objective cards - short game, medium game, long game. A short game can be completed in under an hour, a medium game can be completed in under two hours, and a long game can last as long as three to four hours. Because of these random secret objectives, no game is ever the same. And I'm just scratching the surface here, because there is so so so much more to this game: progress and character cards, market trend cards, domestic and international markets, wonders, and more! And did I mention how gorgeous the pieces are? Anyway, Archipelago is not a cheap game, but I think it's one of my most favourite board games now.

Galaxy Truckers
This is a game I really really want to like, and maybe I will eventually. A lot of other reviewers and players rave about how fun this game is. The premise is that each player builds a haphazard spaceship out of spare parts and then races around the galaxy trying to collect and deliver cargo while pieces of the ship are being blown off by pirates, asteroids and whatnot. The game has three rounds. In each round the players will build progressively bigger and more complicated ships, by quickly looking through a huge pile of face-down tiles that represent engines, crew quarters, weapons, shields, cargo holds, etc. The catch is that they have a limited time to do so, and they're competing with other players for tiles. After the ship is constructed, players criticize each other's ships, trying to find flaws and mistakes - so your ship might lose parts before you even launch it! After all players agree on each other's ships, they are launched. Events are drawn from a pile of cards, these events might give cargo, or slow down the ship, or simulate attacks on the ship. After there are no more events, the players score their cargo (and other victory point conditions), and then start anew, by building a bigger, better ship. I can see how it can be silly fun - it's very much a 'beer and pretzels' game - and the randomization of events adds to the replay value, but it is also strangely unforgiving. Build your ship wrong, draw a particularly nasty event, have an unlucky dice roll, and you're screwed for the rest of the game. Maybe you can make it back in the next round, but it's unlikely. Unlike Archipelago where you never feel like you're falling behind everyone else and where you are constantly doing something and having fun, Galaxy Truckers can quickly turn boring and frustrating if luck and rules go against you. A lot of people really like this game, but I would not recommend it.

Well, that's that. As I am returning to Toronto next week, I will be trying out new games at Snakes and Lattes instead, so hopefully I'll have time to do more mini-reviews soon!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Some boardgame reviews

Last couple of weeks I've been going to Monopolatte - a boardgame cafe that recently opened up in Ottawa (summer vacation is awesome that way!). We've tried several games, all but one of which was new for me, so I just wanted to throw out a brief review of each.

Lords of Waterdeep
Although produced by Wizards of the Coast, and using their Dungeons and Dragons and Forgotten Realms brands, it was not at all the expected derivative adventurers-on-a-quest kind of game (like Talisman, Descent or Hero's Quest). Instead it is a surprisingly deep and fun resource management game. Each player assumes control of a faction and a leader (whose identity and goals are kept secret until the end of the game) trying to manipulate the city of Waterdeep and amass more victory points than the other players. At its heart it's a resource management and action management game that is quite close to Agricola in spirit and mechanics (but has much prettier art). Each player has a limited number of actions per turn, with these actions the player has to acquire resources (in the form of adventurers), intrigue against other players (by using special intrigue cards), construct buildings in the city that provide additional types of actions (Agricola style) for all players, acquire quests from a tavern, and then send out teams of adventurers (in other words spending resources) to complete the quests. There are a lot of pieces, and the setup takes a little while, but once we started playing it was very easy to understand and very fun. I would definitely play it again in a heartbeat. It worked quite well with 3 players, but would work even better with 4 or 5.

Ticket to Ride: Scandinavian Edition
I've played Ticket to Ride before a bunch of times, so I knew what to expect. Players draw multicolored cards from a common deck (either face-down or from a pool of 5 face-up cards) that they then use to lay down cute little railroad wagons in an effort to complete railway routes from one city to another. Meanwhile each player has a number of secret goals to complete (link the following destinations together: Helsinki to Oslo, Konigsberg to Stockholm, etc.) that reap victory points at the end. It's a fun and easy and quick game. What Scandinavian edition does differently is that it adds the concepts of tunnels and ferries. Ferries require special locomotive cards to complete, while tunnels may end up being much more expensive to complete than they seem if the player constructing a tunnel happens to be unlucky. I can't say that either addition made the game more enjoyable than the standard version of the game, but it was fun enough. I would not recommend this version of the game, however, because it only supports 3 players. Get the standard edition of Ticket to Ride (U.S. or Europe).

7 Wonders
Here's a game I really wanted to like, but doesn't quite deliver. Each player gets a random great wonder of the ancient world at the start of the game, and tries to complete the wonder and build his city (which will generate the resources to complete the wonder as well as earn bonus victory points in the process). There are three ages - each age has a different deck of buildings - and during each age the players will be able to play 6 cards from their hand. They can use these cards to generate gold, to complete stages of their wonder, or construct buildings. The trick is that after each player plays a card he then passes his remaining hand to one of his neighbours, so you can purposefully build a building you don't need in order to deny it to your enemy. To construct buildings and wonder stages players buy resources from their neighbours (i.e. other players), or have the resources generated by their existing buildings. At the end of each age there is also a special military conflict stage, which allows conquest-minded players to reap additional victory points by constructing military buildings that help during conquests but do not provide any other resources or victory points otherwise. All of this should be quite fun, except it just ends up not feeling like it at all. The game felt too random, with the constant passing of card hands back and forth it didn't seem like there is much room for deep strategy or planning, and it was easy to get completely stuck because a particular resource was unavailable. The production value is quite high (it's sooooooooooooooooooooo pretty), and maybe it's more fun with a larger group of players (it supports up to 7 players), but I'll give this one a pass in the future.

This one's a classic boardgame, but I've only now tried it. It's quite similar in spirit and mechanics to another classic boardgame - Carcasonne. Players draw tiles and then try to assemble the most awesome palace complex (Alhambra). There are four types of money cards denoted by their colours that the players compete to gain, that they then will use to purchase tiles from a common pool. On each turn a player might buy a tile and put it into play, put a tile away from his board and into his reserve to use it later, put a tile from his reserve into play, or take money. It's very much about planning your actions in advance. There is also an element of a jigsaw puzzle and city optimization because the way you construct your palace has its own special rules, and it matters how the tiles are placed and fit together. Players score points depending one how many buildings they constructed of each type (there are pavilions, towers, gardens, arcades, etc.), who has the longest city wall, if anyone constructed a fully walled-in city, and so on and so forth. The set-up takes a while, but it's easy to understand and play, even though there are many paths to victory and quite a bit of depth to it. I can definitely see why it's a classic and many people would find it very fun, but it's not a game for me - I can't say I enjoyed Carcasonne, and I can't say I enjoyed Alhambra either.

So there it is! Next time I hope I'll have a chance to play a few more games from my to-do list: Cosmic Encounters, Galaxy Truckers, and maybe even Twilight Imperium!

Incidentally, if you live or visit Ottawa go check out Monopolatte - it's a very friendly and reasonably priced boardgame cafe, and they have a good variety of games. They're not quite as big as Snakes and Lattes in Toronto yet, but I hope they'll continue expanding! The staff is very friendly, and the food is cheap and tasty.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Depressing Reading

Not that long ago I got into a spat over Harry Potter books. The argument was over the axiom that "Harry Potter books are great because they got kids to read again." There are at least three things wrong with view:
1. It presumes that kids were not reading before.
2. It presumes that the kids have continued to read after they've finished Harry Potter series.
3. Therefore, the unspoken conclusion goes - thanks to Harry Potter children's literacy rates have gone up.
On the surface, the ever-expanding Kids/Teens/Young Adult sections of your local book store seem to support this conclusion. But from where I am sitting, even this YA boom is more of a desperate attempt to recapture the Harry Potter phenomenon, rather than an indication of a massive surge of reading among the young people. And then there is this NPR article titled "What Kids Are Reading, In School And Out." Please read it.

OK, done? Or did you just read the first paragraph? Did you just scroll to the end, hoping to find the talking points? If you read it through, then you are ahead of most young people I know. "But wait, the conclusion of the article directly contradicts you! The man said 'reading leads to reading' so reading Harry Potter must have led to more reading!" Not so fast, there is no guarantee that a young person will, upon finishing a beloved series, desperately seek out a new series. And even if s/he do, it will likely be on the same reading level, not a more complex one. Thus "Hunger Games", thus "Twilight", thus "I am Number Four", etc. etc. etc. The NPR article above seems to support the conclusion that American young people are reading below expected grade level when they bother to read at all.

Lest you say "Well, it's American public education system! Of course that's the case!", the situation in Canada isn't much better. Here's the conclusions of the International Adult Literacy Survey for Canada, conducted in 1994. This stands out: "[It] is particularly disturbing that a substantial number of Canadian adults scored in the bottom two levels on all three literacy scales. Although over 20% achieved Levels 4 and 5, over 40% were rated at the lower end of the scale at Levels 1 and 2, and of these, nearly 20% were at Level 1. These adults with low literacy skills are likely to see their future economic opportunities further eroded. Canada’s overall literacy ratings were comparable to the United States; however, a high
proportion of our population achieved the lowest level of literacy in all three domains." (by the way, Singapore, Sweden and Finland are consistently the most literate countries in the world) 1994 is three years before the first Harry Potter book hit the stores. Let's suppose that in 1997, the kid reading (or more likely being read to) Harry Potter is 6-10 years old. In 2007, s/he would be 16-20 and would therefore be a potential participant in the International Adult Literacy Survey (people 16 and up are eligible). However, the next IAL survey was administered in 2003, and the next one is due either this year or the next one. However, comparing the 1994 and 2003 IAL survey, a very worrying pattern emerges. Some highlights (find the full report here):
- Nationally, 48 percent of the adult population – 12 million Canadians aged 16 and over– perform below Level 3 on the prose and document literacy scales (about 9 million or 42 percent of Canadians aged 16 to 65). Level 3 proficiency is considered to be the “desired level” of competence for coping with the increasing skill demands of the emerging knowledge and information economy.
- Overall, there has been little change in literacy performance between 1994 and 2003.
- Contrary to expectation, the report finds little improvement in literacy proficiency since 1994. The new survey shows almost nine million Canadians aged 16 to 65 (12 million if Canadians over 65 are included) score below the desirable threshold of prose literacy performance.
- The established patterns of literacy proficiency continue to prevail, with higher performance among the young and the educated.

Hey, that last point is great, right? Young people are continuing to perform higher! Not so fast. The young people growing up in 1994 scored higher that year than the older people that year. But those people who were young in 1994 grew up in time for 2003, so shouldn't their earlier successes carry over into mature adulthood? Apparently not. Huh, that's strange. What it suggests to me is that this pattern will reemerge in the 2013/2014 IALS, and will not show any marked improvement in literacy despite the young people supposedly "reading again". While we are waiting for that survey to be administered and results compiled, evaluated and revealed, we can turn our attention to ALL - Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey. The last one was in 2008, and it uses identical questionnaires, data collection and statistical methodology as IALS, so the results are pretty much comparable. You can find the full report here (scroll to pages 45-46 for the interesting stuff). You'll find Canada lagging only behind Norway and Bermuda for prose reading (so basically reading news and creative writing) and only behind Norway and Netherlands for document literacy rates. That's good news right? Nope, because unlike IALS which is administered on a truly global scale, ALL is administered only in select countries, and when stacked against other countries in the survey Canada is looking pretty good. The problem is that Norway has the lowest literacy rate among Scandinavian countries, and Netherlands isn't doing so hot compared to many of its European neighbours either.

Clearly there has been no progress on the literacy front between 1994 and 2008, Harry Potter or no. Maybe education is to blame? Perhaps, except that since the devastating findings of the 2003 IALS more money, time and effort in education has gone towards raising the reading and literacy levels than anything else, save perhaps various technology-related courses. It's not matter of mismanagement either. There are specialized qualification courses for teaching reading and literacy that many teachers now take. There are many truly talented and intelligent teachers and academics studying and working on the problem. Reading is one of the overall curriculum goals across Canada, fostering reading and literacy is priority number one in most subjects. School libraries have never looked so good. Bookstores are brimming with books for young people. Heck, there are so many books available for free through regular libraries, ebooks, on tablets and phones. So why aren't kids reading more? Didn't they read Harry Potter? Didn't they get the memo that they're supposed to love reading now?!

(OK, sorry I keep ragging on Harry Potter. It's nothing personal, it's just that this is the go-to book that people bring up when arguing that kids are reading again. Back in 1960s it was Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street. Same difference really.)

On to anecdotal evidence and to come back full circle to the NPR article. This year I was blessed with many intelligent, hard-working and genuinely curious students. Vast majority admitted that they do not read books outside of the ones they have to read for school. One student, a pretty intelligent guy, admitted that he did not read any books in the last 3 years, including the ones assigned at school - he relied on Sparknotes, Yahoo Answers, wikipedia, and movies. I have two Grade 12 students, one Grade 11 student, maybe two Grade 9 and 10 students, who I see regularly reading unassigned books for enjoyment, or asking my advice on what would be a good book to read. With one exception they are reading books that are technically below their reading level, but at least they are reading! The rest grumble. Assigning 40 pages to read over the course of a week is a huge challenge. Lord of the Flies proved very challenging to a Grade 9/10 class. Catcher in the Rye was at best skimmed-through by a Grade 11 class. Great Gatsby was challenging to a Grade 12 class. For shits and giggles, after introducing the book I divided the class in groups and asked them to paraphrase and explain in their own words the first three paragraphs of the book (yes, it's the one with the convoluted 'secrets of wild and young men' passage). They couldn't, even though it wasn't written in German or Elizabethan English. Over the last three years I've taught (not counting Shakespeare obviously): Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, 1984, Handmaiden's Tale, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Frankenstein, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Wars, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, parts of the Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, Ender's Game, and more. With most students and most of these books I saw the same story. Skim reading at best, heavy reliance on copied notes and Internet, complaints about the book being too challenging, incomprehension of vocabulary (sometimes really frightening gaps!), insistence on constant hand-holding through the book, lack of original thoughts about the book at all. Every year (or semester as the case may be) I conduct a little survey, asking students what they've read last year, what they've read during the summer, how much they read each week, what is their favourite book, and - what did they read when they were 6-10 years old. To that last question the answer is in 90% of the cases - Harry Potter. The answers to the rest of the questions are just depressing.

Friday, May 31, 2013

L'ennemi intime (Intimate Enemies) review

An excellent and unflinching look into one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century - the Algerian War (although the French refused to formally call it a war), Intimate Enemies might be categorized as the Frenchversion of Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. Unlike most war movies it also maintains a surprisingly successful level of suspense more associated with film noir (the amazing music score might have something to do with that). It deals with many of the similar themes to aforementioned movies: the unwinnable war, the horrible brutality and dehumanization of the enemy, questionable 'ends justify the means' mentality of one's own side, resignation and bitterness of the common soldiers. Algeria was not merely a war of Algerian revolutionaries against French oppressions, more than two million so-called "blackfeet" - ethnic Algerians who supported the French - fought in the war as well. Both sides butchered and tortured civilians and prisoners alike - truly there were no "good guys". Intimate Enemies has all the military cliche characters that we might expect but still manages to make them seem like real people, and endow them with real emotions and real dilemmas. The French experience has much to teach us about other conflicts going on today: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia. Intimate Enemies is now one of my favourite war movies, and the best movie about the conflict in Algeria since the excellent black-and-white "Battle of Algiers". It is now on Netflix in the foreign film category and I strongly recommend it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

French onion soup

I made a new recipe, something I always wanted to try - French onion soup! Now this version is an amalgamation of half-remembered tales, food network shows, and last-minute inspiration, but it turned out very well! Here we go:

- 2 large onions, chopped into thick slices
- two sticks of butter
- one or two cloves of garlic
- a splash of red wine or brandy
- beef broth, approximately 600ml
- Worcestershire sauce
- four thick slices of bread (ciabatta or crusty French bread are best)
- olive oil
- about 300 grams of Emmental cheese, grated
- salt and pepper to taste

1. Chop the onions and the garlic, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the onions, sautee them until tender and the rings break up, but don't cook through yet. Add the garlic. Preheat the oven to 300C.
2. Add the broth, Worcestershire sauce, and the wine or brandy. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes or so, then let simmer for 10 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Meanwhile slice the bread, drizzle olive oil on both sides, place on an oven tray and toast in the oven lightly until bread is just turning golden brown (on both sides). Remove from the oven.
4. Divide the grated cheese into 8 equal parts. Spread 1 part of the cheese into the bottom of an oven-friendly bowl (flat bottom is best). You should have four bowls total (so you'll use up half of your cheese on the bottom of the bowls).
5. Divide the soup mix equally among the four bowls, place the toast on top of the soup, then sprinkle with remaining cheese.
6. Switch the oven to broil, place four bowls in the oven until the cheese is bubbling and becoming crusty. Remove carefully (the bowls will be very hot), garnish with fresh parsley to taste and serve immediately with a spoon and a fork.


P.S. Will post pics soon!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Let's blame those guys!

Admit it. You've already pictured the person holding the flag and he isn't white.
So the Boston bombing happened. And it's terrible, and I even personally know two people who were participating in the marathon that day (they are both unhurt and safely back home in Canada, thank whatever higher power that was watching out for them that day). Passions are riding high of course, and that's all proper and well, but the media circus is anything but. Let's put aside the movie-like tragic music that, first, CNN and then other networks, have been playing in the background of the scenes from the bombing. That's just wasted effort on their part. Instead, watch how the blame game hits the field running. The blast happened at around 2:50, at around 4 o'clock many news outlets were still reporting potential deaths at 10-12 and the number of wounded as unknown. By 5 o'clock (this is all EST by the way) I was reading how the authorities had a young man in custody and much was made how he was from Saudi Arabia and traveled through Saudi Arabia recently. Around 6 o'clock there was even still confusion whether a library in Boston was bombed as well, or if it was a fire, or if it was related, or if they found something in the library, or what, but CNN, MSNBC and Fox were already gleefully speculating as to the identity of the suspect and the fact (or was it really a fact at all?) that he was Muslim.

By 9 o'clock the comments on news sites (and not so coincidentally my Facebook and Google+ feeds) were alternating between "Oh, my prayers are totally with them/Remembering the victims in Boston" (Really? Like a dozen people in my contact list all personally knew the victims in Boston? What a coincidence!) and "Let's bomb them whoever they are". The big implication being of course that the whoever-s were from somewhere other than America, most likely in more southern latitudes and more easterly longitudes, and decidedly not Christians. "Is this going to be one of those 'let's not be racist' posts?" you ask. Not at all. Watch closely.

The Saudi embassy quickly swung into action. Full denial mode bitches! We're cooperating closely! The suspect is really a witness! And he most likely is, and I even believe them. Speculation by the media gives way to very public media mourning, celebrating heroes, and more water treading. And of course we should all feel bad about what happened, and the people who helped the victims are heroes (or at the very least good human beings), but all of this must happen without pointing fingers at U.S.A.'s closest ally in the Middle East. Ha! And you thought it was Israel! 3 billion and change to Israel in 2012 ($30 billion spread out over a decade in total, and some of that is being clawed back). Meanwhile 11.4 billion USD sale of 84 F-15s to Saudi Arabia and a bunch of Blackhawk and Apache helicopers for another $5 billion USD to Saudi Arabia in 2012, and probably another $20 billion in more military sales in the neat future. Care to guess how Saudi Arabia is going to pay for that? Oh, that's right, deep discounts for Saudi Arabia through U.S. International Military Education and Training program. How deep the discounts are? No one knows, although pointed questions have been asked in Congress. And, well, the Saudis exports to the U.S. in 2012 were $47.5 billion USD, so they can easily afford the F-15s, and the Blackhawks and Apaches themselves if they need to.

What does this have to do with Boston? Nothing and everything. Nothing, because probably none, or very few, of the victims of the blast were involved in shaping U.S. foreign policy, overseas involvements, and international trade. Everything, because the images of the victims will become part of the political and media circus, massaged and manipulated to suit the national interests. Yesterday, the knee-jerk reaction was to make much of the nationality and religion of the only suspect, because it's the default mode of post 9/11 world. Today, the knee jerk reaction is to do everything possible to either forget about the so-called suspect, or to make much of how much he and Saudis are cooperating, and to focus on the 8 year old boy's sweet school assignment, or the victims. Don't worry, it's business as usual.

P.S. At least authorities aren't ruling out the possibility of domestic terrorism. I hope no one has forgotten about Timothy McVeigh yet? Or that the Westboro Baptist Church is already saying that more violence will consume the nation if homosexuality doesn't become a capital crime? Hmm, sounds like a threat to me. It's not like Muslim fundamentalists have a monopoly on violence you know.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

There's a sucker born...

I am genuinely curious - how many other professions are out there that do one or more (or all!) of the following:
- demand you have a specialized university degree to get a job in the profession on top of your previous university education;
- demand you pay fees to get member standing with a "professional college" of members (whatever that's supposed to be) after obtaining the said specialized university degree for the privilege of applying to jobs (protip: said college doesn't actually do anything for you aside from shiny glossy monthly newsletters and some library in some building somewhere in downtown Toronto, and of course the previously mentioned privilege);
- demand that you volunteers as much of your free time as possible to basically work in your profession without pay in return for vague assurances of an interview at some later undetermined date;
- demand that every year or two you spend 600-800 dollars of your own money on "additional qualification" courses without which you will never (or so you're assured!) get a job in the profession (note: you pretty much have to do this whether you already have a job in the profession or whether you're just trying to get one);
- demand that when you do finally get that interview, and then hopefully that job, that you work part time for a few years (until a full-time position somewhere opens up), but continue to also do all of the above as well as pay union fees.

So, my dear Ministry of Education of Ontario, Ontario College of Teachers, and various Ontario boards of education - this is why I do my best to dissuade any and all of my students, friends, relatives, and acquaintances from pursuing a career in public education in this country - it's a con game and the deck is stacked against the future graduating teacher. Teacher colleges are an incredibly lucrative source of money for universities - high return on investment, low cost (part-time profs and guest lecturers teach at Teacher Colleges), combined with steady cash flow (those additional qualifications are taken by tens of thousands of teachers every year without fail). They have zero interest in: a) matching the number of graduates to the actual jobs out there, and b) providing the future graduates with realistic expectations about their future jobs or lack thereof. So to paraphrase Ambrose Bierce:

University (n.): An ingenious device for obtaining profit by creating unrealistic expectations.

(For an actually brilliant and incisive examination of universities as the giant corporate profit machines and hedge funds that they are, check out this post by The Last Psychiatrist - the entire entry is brilliant but for the specific discussion of the system and higher places of learning in it scroll down to part V)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The best thing about Dead Space 3 is that it's free.

To clarify - it's  not actually free, but because I bought the new Simcity and it had a rocky launch, EA gave the people who bought Simcity a free game to placate the customers. From a limited catalog I picked Dead Space 3 - in part because I really enjoyed the first game in the series, and in part because the alternatives were Battlefield 3 and Bejeweled. In hindsight Bejeweled might have been a better choice.

To clarify further, I haven't finished the game yet, according to the helpful percentage complete dial on my saved game I'm almost halfway through. Great. Can barely contain my enthusiasm. Let me dial down the difficulty to casual so I could finish it faster.

There we go, that's a little better. Of course I'll never get back an hour and a half of my time I lost when the game decided to randomly reset my save to a much earlier checkpoint. And I will not get back half a quotation mark key on my keyboard. The poor quotation mark didn't do anything to me, but I had to punch something in frustration and it was the closest thing. Rest assured gentle readers that despite being maimed the quotation mark still works. Watch, I'll demonstrate. ''''''''''' """""""""""

Where were we? Oh yes, how much this game sucks. Please understand that it's not EA hate. I never hated on EA before and never understood the hatred that some people felt for this company (enough to vote it the worst company in America). Oh sure, I was disappointed with Dragon Age 2, and The Old Republic was also a hit-and-miss experience. And I didn't hate the Mass Effect 3 ending as if it was puppy-killing/cancer-spreading Hitler like so many others; it left me shrugging rather than boiling in rage. But after spending 8 hours with Dead Space 3 I can now understand the EA hate.

How I hate Dead Space 3? Let me count the ways. Maybe it's the toxic carry-over from a console port also known as "save checkpoints." Maybe 15 years ago when consoles didn't have hard drives we needed save checkpoints. But in this day and age not only don't consoles need it, but we don't need to port them to PC either!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I think I almost broke my exclamation mark key as well.

!!! No, still works. As I was saying, there are save checkpoints, and they're awful, and really spaced apart. Death will not set you back all that much, usually a room or two at most, but quitting the game in between the checkpoints could be (as I found out) nearly 20 minutes of gameplay lost. And then there are the aforementioned save game glitches that reset the savepoint I thought I was bound to, setting me back an hour and a half.

Then there are minigames and quicktime events that suffer from one cardinal sin or the other. The former is the lack of explanation as to what my goal is supposed to be or the controls required to navigate the minigame. The latter is how arbitrary some of the events feel. Sometimes I would pass it with laughable ease, and sometimes (after a checkpoint reload for instance) I would fail the same event with no explanation why.

The camera is a huge problem in Dead Space 3. A signature trademark of this game is that there is no HUD, instead it's projected from the character's body - in other words the character is seeing the same HUD as the player. Only because of awkward camera angles I literally can't see my HUD whenever I'm backed into a corner, or hanging from a cliff. Oh. A shuttle fell on me. I see. I had to press a key, but I couldn't see that I had to press a key because I couldn't see the HUD. Oh, I got killed because I ran out of ammo and couldn't see my ammo counter because of the camera. A neat, artistic, and immersive idea that at the same time fails the gameplay - that might describe much of this game.

The game's been out for nearly two months. During that time EA has released many abominable DLCs for Dead Space 3 that add very little actual substance to the game - different suit skins, more largely cosmetic weapon components. During that time EA and the developer have also failed to release patches to some rather glaring and obnoxious bugs. In one room a panel was supposed to light up after I dispatched all the baddies that would allow me to progress. Only it did not light up and I had to redo the fight 5 times before the stupid panel would light up. It happened in other rooms two more times. Or you know, the game might just decide to arbitrarily take your ammo away with no explanation why. If there was a decent melee mode it wouldn't be such a crime, but unfortunately there isn't. Hope you like using the Half-Life 2's gravity gun ripoff!

Then there is the mission design. To be sure there are spectacularly beautiful and intricate environments - the game is absolutely gorgeous even on my mid-range PC. But the mission design is utterly linear, and with the ability to customize and try out weapons however the players wants in a separate custom arena, I don't see why anyone would want to ever replay Dead Space 3 (except maybe for the coop missions). There is a series of rooms the player progresses through. When there is some big glowing objective you just know that monsters will burst through doors, windows, vents, floor, or thin air. Any horror quickly wears thin as the monsters appear right on cue and there are basically 5-6 monster types (plus human adversaries) using the same tactics in every encounter (except the human adversaries who take cover, throw grenades, and are actually more unpredictable and dangerous).

The story would be very enjoyable and the game is very atmospheric, if it wasn't for some very hackneyed elements. I'm wearing an awesome armored space suit, using it to walk and fly in zero-G and in space (easily my favourite parts of the game), but when I hit the planet's surface suddenly I'm losing body temperature while wearing a suit that could easily protect me from the cold heartless vacuum of space. OK, sure, whatever. My idiot team members will sit in safety and comfort, and not only yell at me to hurry the fuck up while I'm knee-deep in monsters and low on ammo and medpacks, but on the rare occasion when they have to accomplish the task they will predictably fail at it and often place my life in danger! Clearly the level and mission designers were on the same team that designed Doom 3 and Aliens vs. Predator. And the protagonist's girlfriend dumped him too. It's like the game forces both the protagonist Isaac Clark and the player into an abusive relationship and charges money for the experience.

The worst thing about Dead Space 3 is that you can see what could've been a masterpiece of sci-fi horror lurking under the surface. The combat is as strategic and enjoyable, the universe is interesting, the graphics are beautiful, and the atmosphere is terrific. The story is rife with cliches, but in an enjoyable way, and the protagonist is actually an interesting and sympathetic character (even if he is yet another dark-haired white dude). Too bad that everything else about it conspires to drown all the good things about Dead Space 3 in an acid bathtub of rage. Unless you get it for free or with a massive discount a year from now don't bother. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Making Mead

Summary of a first draft of a rejected script.

Picture dull plain suburbia. Our hero is a middle-aged history teacher Rob with an apathetic facebook games-addicted wife and a slacker son. We learn that they will soon adopt a dog from the pound for his son. One day he is hanging out with his brother-in-law, a security guard, when he witnesses a robbery of a liquor store. While one of the perpetrators is caught, the other gets away with a case of mead. Rob recognizes the other robber as his ex-student Terry, but does not identify him to the police, as he is intrigued by the concept of liquor store robbers stealing mead.

The following day we see Rob having what seems like a heart attack. When an ambulance arrives, the paramedics inform Rob that his heart attack was really a bad heartburn and that he is otherwise in fine health. Shaken by the experience, and with a knowledge that he only has between thirty and forty years to live, during which time he has to somehow provide for his wife, his son and their future dog, he resolves that he needs to somehow supplement his teacher salary.

Tracking down Terry, Rob offers him a deal. Before he became a history teacher, Rob was a brilliant historian who wrote his PhD in the history of brewing in medieval Scandinavia. He explains to Terry that the mead sold in stores is subpar and cannot compare to the properly brewed traditional mead. Using Rob's superior knowledge, and Terry's ability to procure ingredients [errrrr, figure out how and why later. Not important at this point], the two set up a home brewery in Terry's garage, because Rob's garage is too full and his wife doesn't approve of his brewing experiments. Together the two go into the underground home brewery business.

Notes scribbled in the margin in author's hand:
So like, that's the pilot, right? L8r the two will provide mead to dangerous neo-Viking pagan bikers, make dangerous deals with the local white trash bootlegger gang, and take out the rival moonshiners using Rob's history knowledge. Think of something historical. Thirty Year War or some crap like that. Rob's marriage goes downhill as he tries to keep his mead brewing from his wife, but she doesn't care cuz Farmville. Have the brother-in-law try to like track down the illegal brewers or something.

Notes scribbled in a different, more forceful hand:
Script is crap but has potential. Like the teacher angle, but history?! Chemistry is edgier. Go with chemistry.

P.S. Moral of the story: chemistry teachers are more interesting than history teachers!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Pfffffffffft Mondays

To paraphrase W. G. Sebold: "Teachers and students regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension." The teachers kind of remember what it was like to be a student, but can't believe they ever had this much energy or DRAMA!!! themselves. The students get a first dreadful inkling of what life is like after school. If you think about it, for most (maybe even all?) students, the teacher is greatest adult presence in their life outside of parents or guardians. Parents are parents, you don't pick them usually, and you're pretty used to their lives. So the outside adult world is in significant part influenced by the perception of the teacher, before a student gets a job of his/her own. However, I am constantly surprised by just how many misconceptions students have about a teacher's life, or what a teaching job is actually like. So here is my helpful guide to a teacher's life put into a perspective a student can understand - a student's perspective. Without further ado:

A teacher:
- Does homework every day. For every subject. Usually before, during, and after school.
- Does other people's homework too most of the time (that's marking for you the unitiated!)
- Has cliques of his/her own. Yeah, we too have personal and sometimes irrational likes and dislikes and we too gossip in the cafeteria and the library!
- Looks forward to every long weekend, holiday and vacation.
- Manages to get by on the tests with a combination of luck, last-minute "OH SHIT I ONLY HAVE 15 MINUTES UNTIL CLASS" panic, and half-remembered snippets from a textbook.
- Does a presentation every day. Usually for every subject. Yes, sometimes we too stammer, not maintain proper posture, have to look at our notes and avoid eye contact.
- Usually hates gym. Unless s/he is a jock. Most of us still has that secret mounting horror when we enter gym. It's like ingrained in us or something.
- Has people that get mad and him/her when his/her homework and assignments are not done. Except in our case grades = job.
- Gets an urge to check his/her facebook, cellphone, text messages and email every 15 seconds. More often if there's DRAMA!!! or Farmville involved (substitute your own brand of poison for Farmville, be it sports, celebrity gossip, recipes, IKEA or DRAMA!!!).
- Has mixed feelings about the other student body (except in this metaphor the student body is literally the student body). Yeah, guess what, we too can't stand the loudmouth in the back of the class, the know-it-all in the front, and we too can be creeped out by that one kid who does that thing with his nose and the pencils and a reindeer...
- Gets detention as well. Typically if we give detention to others. Or if we didn't do our homework on time and now we have to cram it. Or if we have clubs or gym. Yeah, leaving school late sucks.
- Has mornings when s/he wakes up and thinks up of different ways to fake a stomach flu, or high temperature or whatnot.
- Has obnoxious demanding parents to deal with. Only in our case the obnoxious demanding parents are your parents! >^_^<

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Brandon Sanderson Q&A video and highlights

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending Brandon Sanderson's book signing and Q&A event organized by Bakka Phoenix Books (a fantastic store with wonderfully helpful staff) and Toronto Public Libraries. Sanderson is probably my favourite fantasy author at the moment (as well as Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss and yes - G.R.R. Martin), the author of very inventive Mistborn series, the new Stormlight series, and particularly famous right now for his continuation and conclusion of The Wheel of Time series. I also got a chance to ask him a few questions myself. So anyway, a few highlights from the Q&A:

- There will be two more trilogies in the Mistborn series. One will be set in the modern-day equivalent of the Mistborn world, the other will be set in the sci-fie equivalent of the same universe. There may also be another bridging novel between the two, just like "The Alloy of Law" is bridging the first and second Mistborn trilogies.

- Sanderson will have two YA books coming out this year. I actually look forward to picking them up, for myself as well as my students. I really think he can pull of YA well.

- The only things that Sanderson introduced into The Wheel of Time that weren't there before were more interesting tricks that Dreamwalkers could do, and more uses for gateways and Travelling. Personally I think he actually did a better job playing around with the magic system than Jordan did himself.

- Sanderson confessed that there are currently no plans for him to do either prequels or sequels to the Wheel of Time, but if he could, he'd do a prequel novella or a short story or two about Tam, Rand Al'Thor's father. I had a chance to ask him to elaborate on any further Wheel of Time projects, he mentioned that he'd love to see a video game adaptation, perhaps about Tam or based around an Aiel character. Given that I think SEGA has the rights to the Wheel of Time video game franchise right now, it might not be impossible. I just hope it'll turn out better than the Song of Ice an Fire video game adaptations.

- While there was already a list created by Jordan regarding which characters were to die in WoT's last book "A Memory of Light", both Sanderson and Harriet (Jordan's wife and editor of WoT) also bumped off a few more characters in order to successfully resolve the ending.

- Yes, the epilogue of the Wheel of Time in its entirety was written (dictated) by Jordan, and apparently the ambiguous ending was intended that way by Jordan himself. Personally I don't see the ending as being ambiguous at all, but apparently a lot of fans didn't get it or something.

- Sanderson put more Aviendha into the last three books than originally planned, because she is his favourite character. When asked about what were his favourite parts in "his" three Wheel of Time books he stated that Aviendha's and Perrin's chapters were his favourite.

- Very few questions were asked about Stormlight Archives series (which I thought was a shame), but Sanderson is planning on really spinning it out into a huge sprawling epic high fantasy series, and that the timeline will be quite long. So we can probably expect many of the characters from the first book to not make it.

Anyway, those were the big highlights for me. Enjoy the video, I hope it didn't turn out too bad.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Two Minutes of Hate

Sometimes catharsis can come from the most unexpected places. For me it was the realization that I use the word 'hate' too much and that it is an indication that I hate too much. Someone I know posted something on facebook and I made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how it combined all three things I hate (for those curious the three things were Disney World, Starbucks and Harry Potter). Another friend of the original poster replied to my comment and... Well, it spiraled out of control. Or at least it almost did. Maybe this person was a huge Harry Potter fan and she was tired of having to defend her tastes in the public domain all the time. Maybe this person was having a bad day. Or she did not understand Internet-style humour (do people really not know about Godwin's Law anymore?). After one comment, my reaction was that of laughing incredulity, but it got under my skin. And then the comment dug deeper and deeper. How dare she make assumptions about me? In minutes I was shaking with rage, thumbs aflutter composing a post so heinous and bilious that I nearly dropped the phone. Something I pride myself on is that I try to show my male students that they have to treat women with respect, as human beings, and here my post all but started with 'cunt' and went downhill from there. What was wrong here? What was wrong with this picture?

I deleted the post. Never replied to the comment. But that rage, that hate, refused to go away, it just sank deeper, lay still. Do I just post another snarky reply? Try to tone it down? In the end I did not reply at all and just let it lie. Hours later I made a separate wall post to the effect of "stupid people on the Internet". Why? To feel vindicated I guess. To feel I got the last word in. Which of course I didn't, because this person would not have seen my post. It did get me thinking though. Maybe what set the other person off wasn't a bad day, or a love for Harry Potter books. Maybe it was the word 'hate'. And maybe, what provoked such rage in me was that it exposed my reliance on hatred.

Human beings tend to see things in black and white. We can't help it I think. Like or dislike (perhaps facebook is far wiser than many people give it credit for not including a dislike button), yes or no. When given a communication outlet for our opinions that is as physically disassociated as the Internet, we have a tendency to push things to extremes. Like becomes love, dislike becomes hatred. Sardonic irony gets smeared over everything, and that I believe is also its own brand of hatred - the kind where you hate something or someone but you don't want to appear too worked up over it, so... irony it is. It works in reverse too, when I said 'hate' what I thought I was doing was being ironic: "No, I don't really "hate" it, I just dislike it, but it's somehow funnier if I say hate." Well, no, no it's not. If I said 'hate' then that's what the other person hears, and it's also what I want them to hear (whether I realize it or not). So really I'm trying to be ironic and earnest at the same time. The tone is irony, but the message is really "Look! I can take a strong stand on this issue! I have principles!" Dislike is wishy-washy, it's a wet towel of emotions, and we don't want to appear wishy-washy, now do we?

Hold on though, it's deeper than this. Did I say 'hate' to the person whose comments provoked the rage? No, I said 'hate' to the original post. Did I have to comment at all? Why post at all if my comment was a snarky kneejerk ironic reaction? What did I gain by it? Did I somehow enlighten the original poster as to the error of his ways? Did I make the world a better place? No, I just shitposted for the hell of it, to make a stand (but you know, in a physically safe, but emotionally charged way) to show that I could take a stand. And when someone else calls me out (rightly or wrongly) it put me on the defensive, it challenged my plan. Goddammit, I had this whole nice picture in my mind all laid out! It's a funny comment, it'll get a couple of likes, maybe a snarky response by the original poster, let bygones be bygones and let the good times roll on. Now how dare this stranger ruin my plan, challenge my power - nay, my right! - to ironically shitpost? Hence hate, hence rage. See, this is what I ultimately realized. Hatred is a natural emotion, but it's not a right, and it's not an expression of power that I think many people mistake it for. Hate is a response to power, hatred is not an emotion of a strong person, but an emotion of a weak person, or one who is unsure about the security of his power. So when someone challenges our hatred, it provokes rage. I think I could do better in the future.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The horror inherent in chains

Having recently seen Quentin Tarantino's latest film "Django Unchained", I came away satisfied but not quite. It does not feel quite as ambitious as the earlier "Inglorious Basterds", nor was it as intimate as "Deathproof", and while very entertaining at times, its pacing seemed constantly off. But this is not meant to be a review of the film as a film; I'd much rather mention the parts of the film that underscore the intense yet casual and systematic brutality of American slavery. What is surprising to me is that aside from a few excellent documentaries, there are very few feature films made about slavery, the lives of the slaves and the slave owners. Oh, there is Spielberg's excellent Amistad, and the amazing (in my opinion the best) Civil War film Glory, both of which have slave and ex-slave characters, but neither of which are about slavery. The rather poor adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin approaches the subject in more detail, but also with more paternalism (as indeed the novel did as well). What Django does extremely well, once we get past QT's signature dialogue, the morbid humour, the long and brutal shootouts and fight scenes, is how it shows the commonplace horrors of slavery in a way that really got under my skin once I noticed them.

*** Minor spoilers ahead ***

For me, one of the most striking shots, but one that I found after the film that the audience had missed, is a shot of the so-called 'hot box' - a half-buried wooden chest sitting in the middle of a lawn, well-outside of any possible shade, into which a recalcitrant slave is thrown as punishment, to endure the heat of the sun and all that it entails. Horrific punishment? Undoubtedly. But what really underscored the horror was that the hot box is situated in the middle of a perfectly manicured lushly green laws, whose greenery is broken by a well-beaten brown path leading only to the hot box. Let this mental image settle and digest for a minute. How many slaves would need to be escorted and thrown into the hot box year after year for their feet - and the feet of the guards - to make this well-beaten path? This one detail demonstrates both QT's genius as a film maker and the care with which he approaches the subject. One tiny detail suggests an entire system in place, rather than an arbitrary brutality.

Another equally striking scene is that of house slaves setting up a table in the fanciest European style (as the plantation owner is entertaining a European immigrant). Their movements are precise and practiced, the camera lingers on the motion of their fingers as the slaves carefully smooth the napkin after setting down each piece of cutlery and china. The scene is beautiful yet haunting - the juxtaposition between their status as slaves and the finery and opulence that surrounds them (is indeed in their hands!) is clear. This short scene serves as a preamble to a narratively more important dinner scene later on, but coming on the heels of the hot box (and one other scene) it has undeniable power. The director seems to be suggesting that the contrast isn't merely between wealth and slavery, but also between the different hierarchies among the slaves, and it does so in a purely visual way that is just as effective (if not more so) than Samuel L. Jackson's excellent performance as the house slave butler.

I'll conclude with another powerful scene. A character is walking with a beautiful slave girl on plantation grounds, inspecting it as it were. Throughout the long shot there is a sound of a whip cracking in the background and it's getting louder. The audience of course tenses up - we think we know what's coming. Yet observe the background and the slave girl giving the tour. Life is going on in the background, children playing, women washing linen, and so on. Can the slaves not hear the whip? Of course they can. Do they not feel pain and horror at having one of their number ? Of course they do. But to them the crack of the whip becomes the background noise of everyday life which is already brutish, nasty and short. The implication in the seemingly tranquility of life in the background is that such an occurrence is so systematic and pervasive that it does not bear thinking about consciously.

There are many other similar details, often tiny and background, that underscore the brutality of the system, and for that QT should receive high accolades indeed, because behind the dialogue, the Western tropes, the humour, the stylish (sometimes even cartoony) violence, "Django Unchained" is an honest and unflinching look at a very dark time and place in American history. Nowadays, despite having a black president, there are many attempts to whitewash the history, often in reaction to historical revisionism of 1960s-1990s. Textbooks are being rewritten to eliminate any mention that the Founding Fathers were for the most part slave owners, that many American presidents were slave owners and profited from it greatly, that slavery was not merely an evil perpetuated by individuals but that it was an integral part of American political and economic history. But that's a discussion for another time.