Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hitchin' up the buggy, churnin' lots of butter

I initially told people that were we headed into “Amish Country” for the weekend, but seeing our first stop was at a wolf sanctuary, which is not something that has a particularly close association with the Amish, I eventually started talking about it as a day trip into Lancaster County instead.

We haven’t been down that way in nearly a decade. Last time, we went down on a Sunday, and nothing was open but the local laser tag arena.

Despite encountering some construction on the way, we made good time down to Lancaster, arriving in time for the 10 o’clock tour at the wolf sanctuary. Our guide was an older man, and he was personable and well-informed, able to answer any question offered by the crowd, even the astonishingly specific ones asked by the teenage wolf nerds. Something that surprised me was just how feral the wolves remained in captivity. One of the older wolves was suffering from some kind of ailment. The staff wanted their vet to check him out, but in order to do that, they would first have to drug him, a process that he probably wouldn’t survive. So they let nature take its course, and he began slowly improving over the course of the week, and was eating with the rest of the pack when we were there.

I don’t like dogs at all (I’ll soon be launching a Kickstarter to replace all pet dogs with Roombas), but I enjoyed our time there.

We ate our picnic lunch at the gazebo behind Hayloft Candles, which is a candle store/petting zoo, the latter of which is a loss leader to bring in customers. It’s not a combination that would have occurred to me, however it seems to work for them, so more power to them.

I almost bought candle making supplies, but decided against it. It looks like it could be a fun process, and I’m sure I can pick up the supplies at a hobby store. Jen bought a Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook, so she can make those pig knuckles just the way my Grammy likes them.

After that we drove to Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides. There was quite a line, and we gave them our names set out to kill time. The reason that there was a line was because the hotel offers a package that includes buggy rides. This hotel also boasts of its free wifi and multimedia shows.

We went to the Plain & Fancy store. I saw they had selfie sticks.

When we were planning the trip, I observed on Facebook that it seemed wrong to be researching a horse and buggy ride on the Internet. It’s 2015, and I’m usually the last guy to complain about making activities more accessible, but this kind of naked and shameless commercialization did bother me a bit.

We went on the cookie ride, where we ride around town and through a farm. I was a trifle annoyed, because the advertising led me to believe that we would receive a cookie as part of the tour, rather than be given the opportunity to buy a cookie. The little kids who sold us the cookies and root beer were pretty cute, though. No more than six or seven. I’ve never had the opportunity to describe someone as “tow-headed” prior to this.

We bought some Amish root beer to go with our cookies. It was yummy, though the experience was tainted by the fact that the buggy was pulling out just as I was taking a swing, and I got a noseful of manure just as I swallowed.

Here’s a picture of the horses in the buggy behind us. They’re not Amish horses, so I was able to photograph them without stealing their souls.

At one point, our buggy was bookended by a pair of Lexuses. This amused Jen.

We had planned to eat at the smorgasbord at the Shady Maple, but we were still pretty full by the time we decided to leave, so we opted not to. We hit a farmer’s market instead, and Jen picked up some of their shoofly pie.

It was a nice little day trip.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

RPG Review: Yes, Virginia, there is a Feng Shui 2

I love the word “Zeitgeist”.  It’s a German phrase, meaning “spirit of the times”.  It refers to the dominant influence on the culture for a given period of time.

I was thinking, and it seemed to me that the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the X-Files are the shows that best capture the Zeitgeist of the 1990s.

I showed the Fresh Prince to Lily a couple months ago, because somebody had made a reference to the song, and she wanted to know what was up. So we tracked down an episode, and watched it, Korean subtitles and all.  Look at the aesthetic.

It’s more 90s than a Furby wearing a slap bracelet.  It’s firmly set in the 90s, and yet it had instant appeal to a kid born in 2006. And sure, part of it is because it’s a pretty decent show, and because Will Smith is insanely charismatic.  But it has an appeal that transcends its time and place.

The X-Files is different. The two leads had just as much charisma as Smith, and great chemistry besides. The 90s were the perfect time for it to exist, they were the only time for it to exist (as we will doubtless soon learn from the upcoming series revival.) The world has changed sufficiently that the tropes on which the X-Files is built no longer function. That, and while it was genuinely revolutionary in its time, it's been imitated and improved in so many ways, I don't think you can update what did work without losing that distinctive character, and just coming across as another X-Files imitator.

This brings us to Feng Shui. It’s not a period piece, but, like the X-Files, arrived at the only time it could have. Jackie Chan was at the height of his power, Jet Li was breaking into the mainstream, John Woo had yet to trade in Chow Yun-Fat for John Travolta.  Most importantly, Hong Kong was on the cusp of the return to mainland China. It was a time of change, and it seemed like anything could happen.

But it's 2015 now, and the world outside my window is no longer the world of Hong Kong action moves. Look at their list of recommended viewing. It's not exclusively from the late 80s/early 90s, but that's the era that dominates, and the few suggestions from this century seem like pale imitations of those artist's earlier works. That's all I have to say about it now, but I'll come back to this point at end.

The Good: I received my physical copy in the mail last week, and it’s an extremely nice looking book. Of all the books I own, only second edition Nobilis looks prettier.

The art is beautiful and evocative, but it’s also inclusive. This is something that almost every game gets wrong, limiting pictures of PCs to body builder dudes, and lingerie model women, each of them lily white, but we get characters in all shapes and colors, and men and women are evenly represented. I even came away with the impression that the gambler was gay, which was kind of cool.

I haven’t had a chance to run it, but my impression is that the mechanics are an improvement over the old game.  I particularly liked the inclusion of “Blue Moon” rules set off in their own section, which cover niche rules for situations that occur rarely.

The Bad: They lifted an awful lot of writing from the first edition. I thought the update to the spy’s quote was clever, and would have liked some more of that. (Original: "They never tell you this in training school, but really, the best thing to do in a situation like this is to get yourself captured so you can figure out what the enemy is up to." Updated: ""With all the torture these days, getting captured is plan B. But it's still a plan.") That's pretty much it for the bad stuff. It's a great book.

The Ugly: I’m not sure there is still a place in this world for Feng Shui, but you know what? I'm not going to be Feng Shui concern troll.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to be wrong. It was a huge hit at Gen-Con this year. I think it's disappointing they rarely make kickass martial arts movies like they used to, but that doesn't mean I don't love the ones that there. So what if the real world has moved past the world of Feng Shui? It's brilliant thematically, and solid mechanically, and I love the stories you can tell with it.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Feng Shui 2. It exists as certainly as Hopping Vampires and Bags Full of Guns and Shaolin Warriors with bad attitude and Attack Helicopters exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Feng Shui 2! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which asskicking fills the world would be extinguished.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Sky High: Starwhals!

We returned to our superhero campaign last week. The first half of this session was a confused, muddled mess of space narwhals haunting the steam tunnels. The less said about this, the better.

Also problematic was the lateral thinking puzzle. I thought it would be interesting to have a weirdo pose riddles to the PCs. Putting aside the fact that the weirdo posing riddle thing never works, I underestimated how well known the riddle was. Zod’s player was in Gifted & Talented classes from an early age, just as I was, and I had heard the riddle a million times, so I figured he had too. But no.

(It’s the one about the man who lives on the twelfth floor and takes the elevator down to the lobby every morning. But when he gets home, unless it’s raining or there is someone else in the elevator with him, he takes it up to the tenth floor and walks the remaining flights of stairs. Why? A: Because he’s too short to reach the button for the twelfth floor. If it’s raining, he can use the umbrella to press the button.) Apropos of nothing, I imagine the man in the riddle looking like Peter Dinklage in the Station Agent.

Like I said, I thought this riddle was extremely well known, and the plan was to let Lily try to solve it, with Zod providing hints and prodding her in the right direction. But it didn’t work out like that. They weren’t even in the right county with their questions. After ten minutes of painful flailing, I just said that Summer looked up the answer on her cell phone.

We broke early and had the rest of the session the next day.

Booster Gold wanted to meet with Amy and Zod at the local hangout, Nothin’ but Empanadas.

At the restaurant, the group meets Asami Sato and her technical advisor, Gadget Hackwrench.

Yes, that Gadget Hackrench.

At another table President Dog is dining Lady and the Tramp style with Lucy Junior, and their date is not going well.

Gadget tells the team that they’ll need three components to fix the Ewok ship, a power source, materials and operating system.

For the Power Source, the team will have to steal it from Doctor Doom, who will be guest judge at the school’s science fair, at Doctor Mordred’s request. Amy will be Asami’s personal aide, and Zod will be Doom’s.

For the Operating System, they’ll have to get it from a self-aware robot.

For the materials, they will have to go undercover in a Stark industries manufacturing plant.

I'm looking forward to the next session. The first part of this one was a mess, but we've got at least three sessions of good adventures to look forward to.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Watson on Zelazny

A friend linked me to IBM Watson Personality Insights service.  Much, like Corwin and his use of the Trumps, I was certainly not using it in full accord with its author's intention, as it was intended more as a tool to analyze the personality of an author by what he has written, per the guidelines "Ideally, the text should contain words we use in every day life relating to personal experiences, thoughts and responses."

However, I figured the first-person nature of Corwin's narrative would be close enough to apply. So I pasted in the first three chapters of Nine Princes in Amber, and this is what it told me about Corwin's personality. I thought it was pretty good, right up until the end.

You are sentimental, somewhat compulsive and can be perceived as shortsighted.
You are laid-back: you appreciate a relaxed pace in life. You are down-to-earth: you prefer facts over fantasy. And you are organized: you feel a strong need for structure in your life. 
Your choices are driven by a desire for well-being. 
You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done. You consider helping others to guide a large part of what you do: you think it is important to take care of the people around you.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Wacky Wednesday: Things that I love about the Castle of Cagliostro

I’ve loved this movie for years. Fans of Lupin III complain that it’s not really a Lupin movie, and I agree. It’s a Miyazaki movie through and through (“To the autogyro!” is not something often heard outside of Miyazaki's works.)

Where we differ is in what this means to us. The Lupin, or “Wolf”, if you like, is not the lecherous, aggressive, ruthless Lupin of Monkey Punch’s manga. He’s goofy, almost what I’d call gormless (mostly because modern life doesn’t afford me many opportunities to use gormless in a conversation, and it’s a great word) at times, and noble, nearly chivalrous. I’d go so far to call them two different characters, rather than two different interpretations of a character. But I consider that a feature, not a bug. There have been many versions of the characters, and this is the one who doesn’t fit with the rest, yet this is the definitive Lupin for Western audiences.

The stuff I love:

I love that there is a website devoted the gifs of scenes from Miyaki movies, and I’m going to use as many as I can in this post!

Lupin, by way of Miyazaki: As above.

Fujiko: More than anyone else in the movie, Fujiko strikes me as the kind of character a tabletop gamer would create. Her checklist for going undercover in a castle?
  • One dress, red
  • Clark Kent glasses
  • Remember to put hair in a bun
  • Camouflage leotard
  • Submachinegun
  • Half a dozen grenades
  • Hang glider.

Like Lupin, this interpretation of the character has next to nothing in common with Monkey Punch’s omnisexual backstabbing sexpot, but she’s a lot of fun.

Goeman and Jigen: Until I saw it in print, I assumed it was spelled Goyaman.

His presence is odd if you don’t know his backstory. Why did Wolf just send for this Edo-era wandering samurai? It’s never really explained within the movie. He's just there, with bugger all any kind of explanation.

Jigen is great too, and the Superman villain the Hat looks just like him, for some reason.

Inspector Zenigata: For the longest time, tvtropes’ entry for what they now blandly call the Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist was known as “The Zenigata”.

Zenigata is a great sounding word. I like the character, and he gets one of my favorite moments in the movie, where he "accidentally" finds the counterfeit money, and looks directly into the camera and says that he was only looking for Wolf when he stumbled across this, completely by accident "Can you believe it?!"

This is the kind of adversary I really enjoy. He's sincere, and he's good at his job, (Lupin is just so much better.)and he's the perfect foil for Lupin.

Interestingly, he’s apparently the decedent of another fictional detective, Zenigata Heiji, who defeated his enemies by throwing coins, the zeni of his name. Two things here.
  • I love this Phillip Joe Farmer idea of drawing connections between different fictional worlds.
  • I immediately thought of the old video games Black Tiger, and forgotten world, where you could collect “Zenny” to buy powerups. I assumed Capcom had made up a fictional currency and carried it across its games as an inside joke. However, in light of this, I assume it’s drawn from an old Japanese word. How cool is that?
Interpol: If you didn’t grow up a geek in the 80s, you wouldn’t understand, but it seemed like Interpol was everywhere. Chun Li was an Interpol agent. If you needed someone with global law enforcement powers for your globe-trotting series, bam, make them an Interpol agent. Of course, the real Interpol is primarily an agency that coordinates between different law enforcement agencies across the world, and has no actual enforcement powers on its own,

Justice, like lightning: We watched the movie on BluRay, with the Streamline dub and the song and signs option for subtitles. There’s a scene where Zenigata has been pulled off the investigation into the Count, and Fujiko calls him in his apartment to tip him off that Lupin is still active in the country, and his orders to capture Lupin still stand. There is a poster or a framed print in the background with a Japanese character on it, and the subtitle informed me that it was the kanji for “justice”.

Clarice: My daughter loved this movie. I asked her which character she liked best and she said she couldn't decide, because “Clarice is a princess, and even though she's not used to fighting, she attacks the Count to protect Lupin, but Fujiko is ‘purely, insanely awesome’, and she's a ‘secret agent’.”

That observation makes me like Clarice more, and I’m happy that Lily has the empathy to understand that something that’s easy for one person may not be easy for another.

Miyazaki is generally pretty great about writing female characters (q.v. anything he’s ever written) but I don’t know if he hadn’t quite gotten there yet, or if, more likely, the movie was mostly about Lupin, and there wasn’t room to make Clarice more awesome than she already was.

Also, I think every adult in the room said “Hello, Clarice” in a Hannibal Lecter voice at least once over the course of the movie, but we shouldn't hold that against her.

And finally, how awesome is it that an anime from the 1970s passes the Bechdel test?

"Akogare no Paris: From wikipedia: Cagliostro, the country and setting, is depicted in meticulous detail and unconstrained by limitations of architecture, geography and culture, which can be described as "Akogare no Paris:" (Paris of our dreams), which is a fantastical view of Europe through Eastern eyes.

The Count: Fetch me my most FEARSOME ascot. If there were ever to be a live action movie, he would be played by Donald Trump. His hair is enormous!

The Car Chase:  It’s long been reported that Steven Spielberg called the car chase at the beginning of the movie the best car chase he had ever seen, and while it now appears this quote is apocryphal, it’s still a pretty darn great scene.

Score and soundtrack: I love the soundtrack, I love the score. Both are extremely good at accenting the mood of the piece.

So many set pieces that work so well: I was hoping there would be a gif of this. One of my favorite shots from any movie.

" if the way one fell down mattered"
""When the fall is all there is, it matters."

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Movie Review: Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior

My best friend Tim used to pick up VCDs from Chinatown whenever he headed to Boston. I guess VCDs still exist, but they're even more niche than they already were. I don't think I ever watched my copy of Ong-Bak on VCD, because the format is, well, kind of garbage. I did catch it on Netflix recently, and really enjoyed it.

The plot is pretty simple. Tony Jaa plays a monk named Ting, who ventures into the wider world to recover the head of the Buddha statue (the Ong-Bak of the title) that has been stolen from his village. Before he goes, his mentor makes him promise that he will not fight.

Three things I really liked about this movie:

1.) Pumwaree Yodkamol was really super cute.

No clarification needed, I trust

2.) Ting really does only fight as a last resort:

I was listening to How Did This Get Made?'s podcast about the Glimmer Man where much is made of the fact that Steven Seagal's character, an ostensible pacifist, beats the shit out of a maĆ®tre d because the guy is slightly rude.

This chase scene was the highlight of the film for me.

He spends five minutes running from a goon squad he could beat up trivially. The sequences recalls Jackie Chan at his best.

3.) Technical Proficiency means something:

Game of Thrones is a pretty great show, but one thing that drives me crazy (other than the showrunners saying MOAR RAPE whenever they need some drama) is the recurring theme that professional instruction is absolutely worthless, that the only path to true proficiency is to be a self-taught street rat who specializes in dirty fighting. (The corollary to this is that no one with formal training will ever think to protect his groin, and will forever be fatally vulnerable to the Bonns of the world.)

Ugh, no. "Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!" as the apocryphal quote goes.

I think it's a genre thing as much as anything, but Ting has been training in Muay Boran his entire life. Turns out he's pretty good at it. Huh. Who woulda thunk it?

The plot of the movie was pretty spare, but it connected the set pieces and provided the right amount of melodrama, and that's all I was looking for.  It harkens back to the HK movies of 80s and 90s that they just don't make any more. The are two prequel sequels, but they're period pieces. I'm looking forward to more from Tony Jaa.