Wednesday, December 29, 2010

12 Books of the Year

I hate awards, but I love nominations. I love lists, but I hate rankings. So, instead of creating a list of my favorite books read this year, and burdening myself with putting them in some hierarchical order, I'll just pick out a book for every month.

I'm pleased to say I read 46 books this year, which is much higher than normal for me. Granted, about half a dozen of those I marked as "Did not finish" because they were either so bad or not what I was looking for that I didn't want to waste my time on them. Sadly, there were several bad ones I slogged all the way through anyway.

Of the 46, 15 were non-fiction. The topics ranged from silly to serious; some had a tone like a textbook, others like a very interesting conversation. I expect my trend towards non-fiction to continue for the coming years.

In a similar statistic, 14 of the 46 were from the library. As obvious as it sounds, I'm proud of myself for rediscovering this fantastic resource. Especially with the ability to reserve books online, it has become very easy to locate obscure books or pick up the hottest new releases. As much as I love books, I'm a cheapskate and I hate paying full price for them. What could be better than free? The library increased my access to non-fiction and new releases, but also freed me from the feeling of guilt if I chose to stop reading the book.


I don't know whether these books represent the year that was, or future months in which they'd be a good read. So, let's start with H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. I was a big sci-fi buff when I was a little kid, but I rarely read it now. I love the George Pal movie, so I thought I'd give this one a refresh. It was certainly worth it. A very short novel, but filled with great imagination. 4 stars.


A shorter, colder month, great for curling up with a book that you just can't put down. For me, Steinbeck's East of Eden was a revelation. I read The Grapes of Wrath last year, but mostly just thought it was okay. This one blew me away. Each chapter was like a well-crafted short story in and of itself. It was sweeping, literary, emotional, and beautiful. The kind of book where when you finish it, you just have to sit there for a while and bask. This was absolutely my favorite book of the year, and is very high (if not top) on my favorite books of all time. 5 stars.


The third month, how about a trilogy? Honestly, if I were going to make a recommendation, I would suggest only reading the first of the Millennium series. It's not that the other two are bad; they're pretty good. But I think, like many sequels, they offer diminishing returns. The main character of Lisbeth Sanders is a compelling (though difficult) heroine, and I enjoyed having a couple additional adventures with her. 4 stars.


On April 20, 1999, two students went on a killing spree that scared the nation, and became known as the Columbine High School Massacre. The book Columbine by Dave Cullen, is a very lucid and fascinating account of the events of that day. Not only does it dispel some of the myths that sprang up from misinformation, but it also paints a chilling picture of the two young men. A really fantastic book. 5 stars.


On May 25, 1977, one young filmmaker released a movie that cheered the world, and became known as Star Wars. Though it is impossible to go back to the days before mega-blockbusters laden with fantastic special effects, The Making of Star Wars does a great job of letting you feel what it was like. Nobody knew if it would be successful, many of the techniques had never been done, but everyone was young and idealistic. 4 stars.


Speaking of idealistic, and going back even further in time, we come to Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, he and some equally loony friends recreated a raft out of native material and sailed from South America to the Polynesian islands to prove that earlier native peoples could have done the same. His book, Kon-Tiki, is a first person account of the struggles and adventures they went through along the way. Entertaining, educational, and inspiring. 4 stars.


Okay, okay, it's summer. You want to read something goofy and fun, not all of this fact-based stuff. Well, have I got the book for you. The Ruins is quite possibly one of the worst books I've ever read. The writing is fine, but the plot, characters, action, all of it is just enormously stupid. So why list it here? Because, if you were sitting out lounging on a beach somewhere, this would be perfect. It is awfsome. It is terrifible. It isn't "so bad it's good," it's "so bad that I'm having fun marveling at how it could possibly get any worse," and yet it does. 1 star.


So bad it's good? What kind of doublespeak is that? Continuing my re-exploration of some old sci-fi classics, I read George Orwell's 1984 again. If you like to think when you read (rather than check your brain at the door like that last one), then this is a great opportunity. It holds up remarkably well, although I am eager to read Brave New World for comparison.


The Ruins and 1984 on the same list? That doesn't make any sense. Welcome to my world. Actually, welcome to just about everybody's world. Predictably Irrational was a wonderful read in which the author shows how in many situations we humans don't always do what would logically be best for us. But the more interesting aspect is that this behavior can still be predicted, as he shows in several experiments. A very entertaining book on a subject I had never even thought about before. 5 stars.


I'm not a big Stephen King fan, but I have always enjoyed his earlier books. I had never read Salem's Lot, and I thought I was due. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it didn't have the problem ending like so many others. A good vampire story, and a refreshing change from the benevolent, glowing, dreamy teenagery kind. 4 stars.


Richard Stark's Parker #1: The Hunter is a graphic novel. I'm not one of those guys that's embarrassed to say "comic book," but I think this one deserves the bumped-up description. The art is simplistic yet subtle. The story is an old one often retold, but it works very well here. This one is numbered "1" but I haven't yet made the effort to see if others have been released. I will eagerly read them if and when they are. 5 stars.


Winter is coming. For those familiar with the Song of Ice and Fire series, that phrase says a lot. Here, it's just a cutesy intro for my December pick, A Game of Thrones. I have read all of the (existing) books already, and now this one twice. It is epic fantasy, which I normally stay pretty far away from, but it is done in a realistic style. The intrigues of the court take center stage far more than swordplay, and the magic is almost non-existent. It also doesn't hurt that it is currently being turned into a mini-series for HBO. Highly recommended to anyone just looking for a good tale well told. 5 stars.

Well, that does it for this year. Of course, there were many more good and great books that I didn't mention, and I hope the same is true for next year.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I am a Jerk

Yes, it's true. I admit it. As a matter of fact, I'm even going to post a little anecdote that proves it. And I don't care. In fact, I am not remorseful or repentant in the least! So, let my tale begin...

Yesterday, Karen and I went out to get a Christmas tree. We drove over to the local gardening shop, which has the best selection. To get to the actual entrance requires going a long way through an adjacent parking lot, and the strange shape of the location causes it to be more or less just a single, long, narrow lane. As K drove down the lane looking for a spot, a giant SUV zipped up behind and followed about three feet away from her back bumper. A bit unnerving. We pulled into a spot, and the Canyonero sped by to continue to look for a space. Neither of these occurrences are that unusual.

However, we were able to see where the mammoth SUV parked, and it turned out the lady driving it entered the store just a few feet ahead of us. Perfect! I immediately started walking very closely behind her. Every time she stopped, I stopped (and sighed). If she turned, I turned to stay directly behind her. After very little time, she stopped and turned to look directly at me.

Me: "Does it bother you that I'm behind you?"
She: "Well, yes, when you're so close behind me."
Me: "Maybe you should think about that when you're driving."

Exit Greg, stage right.

It's not really the best zinger in the world, but it was a spontaneous act. Am I just on edge because of the holiday season? Karen, of course, thought it was great (although I also suspect she was a little embarrassed). Am I wrong? Should one not confront another person about things like that?

A little bit later, we could see the woman further back in the Christmas tree section. She wasn't looking at us, but she was talking animatedly on her cell phone. I wondered what that conversation was like. I have no doubt that my role in her story was that of "creepy jerk."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

BGG.Con Recap

The weekend before Thanksgiving, there's a big boardgame convention in Dallas called BGG.Con. I've been lucky enough to attend all six years of its existence, including this past year.

For me, it's a great way to try out new games and catch up with friends from across the country that I don't get to see very often, let alone play a game with. This year was no exception.

New Games

Because I try to play so many new games, my friend Mark Johnson invited me to discuss the games I played on his podcast, Boardgames To Go. He also created a geeklist on BGG to read along with during the podcast.

So, with a podcast about all the games I played, what more is there to write about here? I'll just pick out a few random highlights to keep this post short.

This year, I had three main goals:
  1. Play games I've never played before.
  2. Play with people I've never played with (or rarely).
  3. Play games that are too long to be played normally.
Overall, I'm very pleased with my results. Out of 18 different games played, 16 of them were completely new to me. As for #2, I did play many games with at least one person I already knew, but that's okay. I also played at least four (that I recall) with a group of total strangers. My third goal worked out just about right. I was able to get in two long (three or more hours) games, which seems about right.

Buy Low, Sell High

Another highlight for me every year is the flea market. It is such a pain to inventory, price, and pack up a huge assortment of games to sell, but it always feels worth it afterward. Not only do I get rid of a lot of excess games that are just taking up space, I can make a little dough as well.

I had the help of a friend, Sean, which made a huge difference. It was fantastic to have someone help me haul in and set up my wares, plus having an extra pair of eyes to keep track of everything. The benefit for him was not only getting to sell a few just-won games, but also to get into the market before the masses for first pick among the booths. A win-win for both of us!

This year, I sold about 75% of what I brought, adding up to over $500. Even better, I managed to get out of there without buying anything! I did make one trade, game for game, but I think I got a great deal on that one.

Check It Out

This was the first year I volunteered at the convention. I worked in the game library, which is a massive collection of boardgames that attendees can check out to play. This was a very easy job, but it was also a lot of fun. I was able to watch what games were hot going in and out, and talk about geeky game stuff with them as well as my co-volunteers. It was a great respite to be able to just sit down and not worry about finding a game or a person or anything.

This has become a great annual tradition for me, but I worry about how long that will last. Several of my friends have decided to go only every other year. I certainly don't blame them, I just hope I don't have to reduce my frequency as well.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Great Pumpkin Fun Run

This post is a little overdue, but I've had lots of other things going on in my life the last couple of weeks. This will just be a quick post anyway.

For the first time in many months, I ran another fun run. I like these little 5K runs because it's casual, quick, and makes me feel like I've accomplished something so that I don't feel guilty for laying on the couch drinking beer and watching movies for the rest of the day. Not that I ever do that, of course.

My stats this time were:
  • Time: 26:26; Pace: 8:30
  • Overall position: unknown, out of probably 1,200
  • Men's 40-44 position: 27 out of 74 (36.5%)
That's a good pace, especially compared to my last race. I know for sure that I run faster in colder weather (which I think is true for all runners).

Unfortunately, on the last little hill before the finish line, I did something funky to my right knee. Actually, I did it while running about a week before, but I had not felt it again until this race. For the most part, it doesn't really hurt when I'm walking or running. But from time to time, I'll get a sharp twinge that nearly takes my leg out. I'm hoping that a few days of rest will give it time to work itself out. Could it be I'm actually starting to get old!? Oh no!

Karen ran as well, but we split up right after crossing the starting line (which, frustratingly for me, was about 2:30 minutes after the starting gun because we were so far back). Usually, she has a friend she can run with at her slower pace, but we forgot to coordinate this time. On the way to the race, this really frustrated her. However, by the end of the race she was very happy about it. "I didn't have to chat or anything, I could just focus on running!" she said. Now maybe she'll understand my perspective a little and won't give me a hard time for running on ahead at my pace. Either way, we both had fun.

We're gearing up for the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving. In Houston, you never know whether it's going to be warm or cold for that one, but it should be fun either way.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lesson Learned

I came very close to posting about this a few days ago, but in the end I decided there wasn't enough of a story. For good or ill, that story has now expanded.

Flower made squirrel kill number six on Friday. I was in the process of closing the gate after backing out the car when she brought her fresh kill to drop at my feet. I was on my way out, only expecting to be gone an hour or so, so I just congratulated her on the kill and let her be. What harm could there be in letting her bask in her victory while I was gone, before I returned to put it in the trash?

Well, when I returned, the squirrel was nowhere to be found. I searched and searched, but could find no trace. Clearly, Flower had buried it for a rainy day. I didn't really think much of it, especially since there was nothing I could do about it anyway.

Fast-forward to today. I got home and let Flower out, as usual. I decided to open a beer and read my book in the beautiful, late afternoon sunshine. Not long after, I noticed a smell. Quite a smell. Yes, Flower had unearthed her nearly week-old kill and decided it was ripe enough to play with. She was having a ball! The corpse was her newest toy. She would nibble on it, thrash it about her head, throw it on the ground and then flop around with it in the grass. I thought to myself, "Why not? She earned it!" Hoo boy, was that a mistake.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the stench of a rotting carcass. Hopefully, not many. This may be the eau de toilette of choice for dogs, but for humans, it is quite retched. The only benefit for me was that I'm currently reading a novel about vampires, so it added to the ambiance (Note to self-- patent smell of rotting animal flesh for use in smell-o-rama zombie movies).

Flower enjoyed wallowing in the odor, and then trying to bring it in the house. Out in the backyard it didn't seem so bad, but the second I (foolishly) let her in the house, I knew my mistake. So, she got an impromptu bath, and I learned a valuable lesson: Always throw away dead things. No, let's see, never let a dog get away with murder. No, that's not it either. If you smell it, let it go? Hmm. Never trust a live dog with a dead squirrel? Okay, well, none of those seem very good. Let's just say whatever lesson I was supposed to learn, I learned it well.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vampire Weekend

Last night I got to see a great little band, Vampire Weekend. It was a really fun show and we had a good time. I'm not going to do a full review, I just wanted to comment on a few things.

First, the audience. Karen made the comment that more than half the people there were half our age. I was in complete denial of that, of course, but it wasn't too far off the truth. The really sad part was that nearly everyone our age or older were there escorting their kids. For Karen, that makes her feel old and out of place. For me, it makes me feel young (I feel out of place no matter where I am). I'm not trying to be younger than I am, but I do like good music. The age of the musicians or the fans shouldn't make any difference. I hope to still be going to see young bands even when I'm the oldest geezer in the room.

I also had a revelation about opening bands. They are the bridesmaids of concerts, I've decided. They're nice, they're fine, but they can't be too good or they'll detract from the main event. Also, the more different from the main act, the better. We actually had two opening bands for Vampire Weekend. The first was The Very Best. They were quite good, but they were scaled down to just two of the band members. I enjoyed it, but knew it could have been much better. Beach House, on the other hand, was not interesting at all. I imagine they're droning mellow music might be nice to have in the background, or maybe over headphones, but live it was just plain boring. However, that did make VW shine all the more in comparison, so I guess mission accomplished.

Lastly, the douchebag in front of me. I really hate to use that word, but unfortunately it is perfectly suited to describing this guy. You can already picture him in your mind, I'm sure: late 20s, close-cropped hair, pumped-up torso under a tight white t-shirt, jeans with the weird designs on the pockets, and of course, the obligatory flip-flops. During the first three or four songs of the show (Vampire Weekend- he wasn't there for the opening acts), he and his buddy ignored the stage in favor of talking and playing with his phone. Seriously, for 15 solid minutes, they were staring and touching the screen, oblivious to the music around them. It continued sporadically throughout the show, but it was worst at the beginning.

Honestly, this didn't bother me as much as I'm making it sound. What bothered me was the nagging question, Why were they there? If the show was that unimportant to them, why did they come at all? Second-most irksome was, Why did they have to stand right in front of me? But truthfully, the thing that really got under my skin more than anything else-- Why was I letting it bother me at all? This is the point at which I really did feel old. Just let it go. Relax. Enjoy the show. But instead, my mind kept coming back to these dudes in front of me with their stupid phone. Sigh. Deep breath.

Anyway, it was a fun show.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Hate Zoos

Barbaric and cruel, zoos are a throwback to our less-enlightened and imperialistic past. I really don't understand why we still have them. What benefit is there to having these animals imprisoned?

A chance to study animals

False. Why does this have to be done on our terms? Aren't the real scientists out there in the jungle like Dian Fossey? It seems to me that any information learned would be either limited to basic physiology or tainted by the unnatural environment.


False. Again, why on our terms? Couldn't we preserve the animals on a giant reserve more suited to their natural habitat? Why do we have to put them on display for people to stare at them? It is shocking to me that the phrase "the first XXX born in captivity" is used as a positive achievement, rather than a mark of shame. We should not be proud that we can artificially recreate an environment well enough to fool the animals. (But then again, we seem pretty proud of our own artificial sweeteners and Coke Zero, so I guess that evens out.)


False. Is it really educational, or just a chance to gawk at the strange creatures, and maybe pet an emu? With modern technology, our ability to educate ourselves has improved drastically, and I'm not just talking about the internet. The fantastic BBC series Planet Earth shows us what life in nature is really like. We have pictures, video, sound recordings. None of these were available to the Romans. If they wanted to explain an hippopotamus, they had to bring one to Rome. I would rather promote the art of taxidermy. One stuffed animal in every natural science museum would be less harmful than all the tortured animals in zoos.

I confess that I have fond memories of the zoos I visited as a kid. I loved seeing the animals, especially the giraffes. But even then it seemed somewhat wrong. Back in my childhood, zoos were much more like cages than they are today. But no matter how "natural" it is set up, it is still a cage. I can't think of a good argument to justify zoos, except our own bloated egos. It sickens me.


On a similar note, SeaWorld is even worse. If you haven't seen the documentary The Cove, I highly recommend it. It is a very disturbing and depressing investigation into the dolphin slaughters that happen annually in Japan. However, I was angered by the misguided direction of the whole film.

Early on, the main protagonist Ric O'Barry (who trained dolphins for the TV show Flipper), says how much he regrets ever training the dolphins. He talks about his shame that there are SeaWorld amusement parks all over the world, basically because of him. The Japanese fishermen corral hundreds of dolphins to sell to the SeaWorld franchises for about $100,000 a piece. Any that don't sell are killed rather than released back into the wild.

The dolphin slaughter is a horrific tragedy, but here's where the movie went wrong. They spend the rest of the time trying to prove this was going on, and condemning Japan for allowing it. Like typical Americans, they attack the symptom and not the disease. These fishermen wouldn't be doing this if there weren't demand from SeaWorld. Why didn't the movie attack them? Why didn't they call for a boycott of dolphin shows? Is it easier to condemn a country than a corporation?

And when Dawn Brancheau was killed by a performing whale, the outcries were to release or kill the whale. SeaWorld did neither. They kept the whale in anticipation of resuming the shows when the furor has died down. How could people condemn the whale for behaving naturally, and not condemn the company for keeping it unnaturally? It all angers me so much.

If I'm lucky enough to have kids, they'll hate me for it. But I refuse to support the cruelty of zoos or SeaWorld.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tired of Running

Cinderella's name roughly translates as "she of the cinders." Cinders, as in soot, because she was poor and dirty from cleaning all the time (Speaking of which, what's the difference between "dirt poor" and "filthy rich"?). Something that started negative has come to represent beauty. I wonder if that's the same origin of Ashley and Nicole?

Yes, with a random opening though like that, this must be a post about running. I basically took the month of August off from running because it was just so dang hot. I wish I had just opted to accept a slower pace rather than cut it out completely. The weather is getting tolerable in the mornings again, and my body has been aching to get back out there. Unfortunately, that month off has really taken its toll.

This morning I ran 3 miles in 27:29, right at 9:10 minutes a mile. That's not bad, really. And that does include approximately one minute for puppy duty, and another two minutes that I spent walking/resting. The real problem was how tired I was during and after! Even though my muscles were pining for the activity, they apparently didn't realize they weren't as ready as they used to be.

My goal this year was to average under an 8:00 minute mile. I could probably do that if I only ran a mile, but I currently run three and would like to get up to five at least three times a week. That month off makes me feel like I'm starting all over from scratch.

The other good thing about this part of the year is the increase in 5K races in the fall. Those are usually a good motivator for me, so hopefully I'll sign up for one soon.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Driving Test of Faith

On my way home yesterday, it occurred to me the enormous amount of trust we put in complete strangers every time we get into our cars. Numerous traffic laws are more like social contracts to behave a certain way. If everyone accepts the same basic method of driving, then the whole system runs smoothly. Just one person who decides to drive the wrong way on a road or ignore a streetlight can cause complete chaos.

There is also the amazing iconography and graphic design that we encounter on a constant basis. A yellow dashed-stripe means one thing, a white one means something else. All road signs which require a particular action or level of attention are the same color. It really is a pretty amazing system.

But, I digress.

What got me thinking about driving in the terms of trust was the action of one particular driver yesterday. He was a man in his late-40s, driving a nice but older red BMW. Let's call him Bert.

I'm on a large street headed East. There are three lanes for me (I'm in the far left), three headed the other way, and a wide left-turn lane between us. We had been waiting for a traffic light that was quite a ways ahead of us. It had just turned green, and as the compression wave of traffic expanded like the Slinky it is, we were just starting to move. Here comes Bert.

Bert is coming the opposite direction, and he needs to turn left. He glides into the left-turn lane and begins his turn. Right into the existing traffic! There wasn't a space there he was trying to beat; the traffic wasn't stopped so he could create a gap; he just turned. The car ahead of me (let's call him Ernie) had to slam on his breaks to keep from hitting Bert head-on. Bert stopped too-- in the middle of our lane!

By this time, the wave is in full motion. The other two lanes are about up to speed, all of them trying to make that light up ahead. Oblivious Bert just waits there, blocking a full lane, until enough cars see the situation and stop long enough to let him through. Of course, neither Ernie nor I (Can I be Grover?) nor anyone behind us make the light that was only about 20 yards away.

Now, you may be thinking, "So what? That sounds just like a typical asshole driver to me." You're right. But what was Bert's mindset when he made that bonehead move? He *knew* that there was nowhere for him to go, but he went anyway. He probably thought that Ernie wouldn't want to wreck his car, prolong his commute, and ruin his day by running into Bert. You could say he forced Ernie to stop, but to me, it was an act of faith. He believed that he knew what would happen.

After realizing his error, Bert also could have backed up the three feet necessary to accommodate our lane. He could have waited in the left-turn lane for the traffic to pass or even stop, and then make his turn. But again, Bert had faith. He knew that if he stayed his course, eventually others would accommodate him. And he was right! That's pretty amazing, actually.

So, back to what I was saying at the beginning. If *everyone* drove this way, it would be anarchy. Have you ever visited a country where they don't have (or obey) lanes on a road? It isn't pretty. But if just one person out of hundreds does it, the ripple is quickly absorbed by the stream.

You could take from this example that there's always going to be an arrogant jerk on the road with no consideration for other drivers. Or, it could be that all of us are actually quite considerate, and from time to time we are asked to prove it.

As someone who is ashamed of my own occasional bouts of road rage, I think I'll choose the latter.

Friday, August 27, 2010

What Kind of Hobby, Part 2

Wow, has it really been over two weeks since my last post? Worse yet, was my last post really the same one I'm writing on update on today? Yep, looks like it. The weird thing is, in my mind I've already written about seven insightful, amusing, and stunning posts. Now I just have to get them from my imagination into reality (where they will be transformed into stupid, boring, and mundane posts).

So, first of all, I have to share what I think is big news regarding my last post. In that one, I lamented that unlike books and movies, games don't really have an outlet to be shared without being purchased. Well, that has changed. Boardgamegeek, the central website for everyone in the boardgaming hobby, has just launched a new site: Board Game eXchange.

Board Game Exchange is basically a Netflix (or Gamefly) for board games. I think it is an excellent idea. I'm concerned that their pricing model is too high, but the concept is fantastic. Basically, for those not familiar with Netflix, you subscribe to a mail-order service for a monthly fee. Then, you pick a board game you would like to play. They send it to you (including a prepaid method of shipping it back) and you play it for as long as you like. Will this break the board gaming hobby out into the the larger population? I doubt it. But it is a good start.

For me, unfortunately, the service is not as valuable. I have so many games already, and the selection is somewhat limited, that I don't see much benefit in joining. However, if I were just getting started in the hobby, I think this service would be a godsend. Yes, it's expensive, but what a great way to experience multiple new and different games for a (large) fraction of their normal cost. If you don't have a game group or other access to a larger collection, this would be the way to go.

Now, on the the "Part 2" section of this post.

I thought of two more hobbies to compare with playing board games. Perhaps neither is particularly positive, but I think they are both appropriate in different ways.

Is it like playing with trains?

I have a friend who is really into model trains. He goes to conventions across the nation. He has a large set up that he puts on display at a local mall every Father's Day. He's really into trains, and the model train hobby is one way for him to explore that interest.

Now me, I know virtually nothing about trains, real or model. I think they're cool, but I could barely name any of Thomas's friends, let alone discuss their history. But it got me to thinking. How much different are our hobbies? It is definitely a passionate minority that knows all kind of obscure facts about their subject. We both have conventions. We both have preferences (HO scale or Auction mechanism?). We could both talk to outsiders and bore them to sleep within minutes.

We're both collectors. His diorama (or whatever the proper term is) is constantly growing and changing. He's very precise when it comes to time period. He can look for particular items to "complete" what he's working on. How is that different from those of us who have to have a certain edition of a game, or complete a series whether we like the game or not?

Lastly, and this will probably get me in trouble with train enthusiasts, but we both play with our toys. We play games, they play trains. I'm sure that's not the phrase they use, but it's essentially the same. It's not enough to set up an elaborate landscape; you've got to run a train through it! It doesn't mean anything to have the engines if you never see them run. And while they could play with the same train for hours, we could play the same game many times. It's not a perfect analogy, I admit, but I think it's pretty darn close.

But the most damning link to me is the sheer volume of train-themed games. There are train games of every level of complexity. There are train games that are territorial, economic, historical, and trivial. Surely that isn't just a coincidence. There must be some hobbyist-mindset connection I'm not seeing.

Is it like comic books?

I actually have a lot to say about this comparison, but I will try to make it brief since I have such a habit of going long on these posts.

I think the board gaming hobby is very much like the comic book hobby. There is the obvious parallels regarding collecting and reading/playing. There is the devotion to particular artists, writers, designers. There is the preference for particular eras, themes, or genres. All of these make good comparisons.

But what I want to talk about is more the industry. Comics have been around for decades, obviously, and they have taken many forms and branched in many, many directions. For most of their history, they were seen solely as a diversion for kids. But in the last 30 years, that has changed. Kids grew up, but kept buying and reading comic books. When you have 20- and 30-somethings with large disposable incomes as your audience, of course the business world takes notice.

It is no surprise to any comic book fan that Hollywood has discovered a gold mine. The potential was always there, perhaps it just took a while for the technology to catch up. Personally, I think it has more to do with the change in the target age groups of both comics and movies (one getting older, while the other went younger).

But here's the thing. It is easy to see why Hollywood wants to make movies of every comic book. They are both visual, story-telling media. That would seem to be enough. But any comics reader could tell you that there are innumerable things that a comic can do that a movie cannot. Yes, the action translates well, but the literate elements of comics are often lost. Comic characters have histories spanning decades; movie characters compress that into 20 minutes. I'm not saying comic based movies are bad, just that they will never be the same as the actual comic books.

So, how does this relate to board games? I'm starting to see a similar development between board games and video games. Many popular board games (Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride) are available on the Xbox 360, and many more are available for the iPhone/iPod. Video games are much higher profile, like movies. They're a totally different medium, but they share similar traits with board games. Many games have been available on the internet for years, but the transfer to the home box market is pretty big.

The difference, I think, is that comic book movies are often watched by people who have never read the comic source (I've never read Iron Man, but I liked the movie). I don't think the same is happening with video game versions of board games. I get the impression that the only people playing them are the ones who are already familiar with them.

Is this transition a good thing? I'm not sure. I don't think it's bad, but I don't think either video games or board games will benefit from it.

The other big similarity has to do with the creative aspect. During the big comic book boom of the '80's and '90's, it was not only possible but very common for a couple of guys to write and publish their own comic books. The vast majority of these disappeared into obscurity, but there were plenty of success stories as well. From Bone to Strangers in Paradise to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was a huge explosion of creativity and new artists and writers.

Right now, I think we're at a similar stage for board games. Publishing a board game is by no means a simple endeavor, but the growth of the internet has expanded options for publishing, promoting, and marketing these games to their target audience. Again, the rules of the universe (I forget if the 80/20 rule has a name) dictate that most of these won't be that great. But the important thing is that creative people don't feel shut out of participating in the creative side of this hobby. I think that's a wonderful thing, and makes this a great time to be into this hobby.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What Kind of Hobby is Playing Board Games?

One of my favorite hobbies is playing board games. Although I know a lot of people who share this hobby, I would not consider it common, nor especially "mainstream." So when people ask me about it, it usually requires some bit of explanation.

Many times, if I say I like board games, the response is, "Oh, like Risk or Monopoly?" Depending on my mood and how much I care for the person, my response can be anywhere on the spectrum between a full description of the merits of German board game designers to simply, "Yeah, pretty much." And sure, I have a standard "elevator pitch" answer, too.

But what I've been thinking about lately is what other hobbies playing games is similar to. Of course, it doesn't have to be similar to anything; each hobby can stand alone on its own merits. But just for comparison and as a nice experiment, I thought about how I would compare it to some of my own other interests. I've picked some things I think are similar and different about them, but they are by no means exclusive; they are just the ones I chose to focus on for this post.

Is it like reading?

Many people read (sadly, not everyone), so this is something most people can understand. Reading can be educational or purely entertaining. It can take you to an infinite different times and places with ease. It's pretty cerebral, but it also encourages creativity.

How they are similar: Aside from what I mentioned above, I think another strong similarity is the idea of personalities. For books, it's authors; for games, it's designers. Just as some readers will buy the next Tom Clancy or Jackie Collins or Dan Brown book to hit the shelves, many gamers are just as dedicated to Reiner Knizia, Martin Wallace, and Klaus Teuber.
How they are different: Books are inherently solitary; games are not. Sure, there are readings and book clubs and discussions, but when it comes down to it, to experience a book requires only you and a book (and some time). Games are the opposite. Though there are "solitaire" games, I think the vast majority of us would define a game as a contest between two or more people. This is good in the sense that it makes gaming a more social hobby.
What games need that reading has: Libraries. Game libraries do exist on a small scale at conventions and game get togethers, but how fantastic would it be if you could check out games at your local library? And what about discount book stores? The value of a good book is not diminished by having been read. Why aren't there more outlets for second-hand games? Of course, thrifters like myself know that there is if you're willing to spend the time looking.

Is it like watching movies?

I've always believed that seeing a movie is a solitary experience that masquerades as a group experience. Sure, you see them in big groups (at theaters), but your interaction with the film itself is entirely internal. With the exception of talking patrons and cell phones, your experience at a movie is only dependent on what's going on within you.
How they are similar: Multiple people have a similar experience, filtered through their own personal biases. Also, people enjoy watching movies multiple times (especially with home video), just as many have favorite games they revisit often.
How they are different: Movies are passive; games are active. People often get excited by films that "challenge" them, either through interesting new ideas or radical perspectives or ethical dilemmas. But in the end, nothing the viewer can do will change the outcome of the movie. Games don't have as much impact, but they *require* participation. You are more or less in control of how the game ends the entire time.
What games need that movies have: I could say movie rental houses (which are dying out) or public theaters to spread to the masses, but I don't really think those apply. What I would like to see for games is more criticism. Film is studied. Whether it's a simple "thumbs up/thumbs down" or a dissection of the mis en scene, there are all levels of film criticism. Do games merit the same level of scrutiny? I don't know, but I would love to see it anyway.

Is it like collecting?

Many hobbies revolve around collecting sets or examples of a particular thing, whether it be penguins or stamps or comic books or autographs. This sort of hobby focuses more on acquiring, but for the collector there is equal enjoyment in each of the objects themselves.
How they are similar: As many in the board gaming hobby can attest, it isn't long before your measuring your collection not by what games you have, but by how many. Like books and movies, new ones come out every year, all year long. Could you get every baseball card? No. Could you get every Chicago Cubs card? Possibly. Could you get every card for this season? Definitely. The difficulty here is in distinguishing between owning something you enjoy and enjoying something you own.
How they are different: Despite the ease of growing a collection, it really isn't about owning games you never intend to play. Sure, some feel the need to have all the Alea numbered big box games, but most of us value quality over quantity.
What games need that collecting has: A price guide? No, definitely not. But I wouldn't mind seeing a few more trade shows now and then. Even if not for trading, then at least for public display. How neat would it be to see some rare games out for display, or better yet, for play?

Is it like sports?

I don't really like adding this one because to me, sports are games. How can you compare two of the same thing? But, there it is.
How they are similar: Competition, pure and simple. Everyone understands the thrill of victory in sports. It is just as fulfilling in a hard fought board game.
How they are different: Cultural ubiquity. Sport exists at some level in every part of the world, at every level of society. Whether you play or just watch or paint your face to watch the local match, everyone understands sports.
What games need that sports have: Acceptance. No one bats an eye if you tell them you spent all day Sunday watching football. Planted on the couch in front of the TV is fine. But if you said you were inside playing D&D all day, wow, what a different reaction. Living vicariously through sports stars is okay, but acting out fantasy in your living room is not. What I find most amusing about this is the huge rise in "Fantasy Football" over the last decade. Watching wasn't enough-- they had to make a game out of it!

I thought I had a few more hobbies to compare to, but they've all escaped me at the moment. Besides, I think my analysis is running thin by now anyway. I'll just wrap it up here. What do you think? What hobby would you compare it to? How do you try to get people to understand it?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Give Me That Penny!

This isn't the post I meant to make today, but those can wait (and already have). This just happened today.

I was trying to be a good son on the way over to visit my folks. I stopped by Subway to pick up some lunch for us. When everything was assembled and ready to go, the total came to $11.26. Unfortunately, I didn't have a penny.

Hoping to not get a pocketful of change, I handed over a $20 bill and a quarter and said, "Can I borrow a penny?" The guy said sure, rang it up, then handed me my change... $8.99! Then, he said, "Now you have a penny," and took one out of my change! WHAT!? I was so dumbstruck that I couldn't speak. He saw the obvious confusion on my face and tried to explain his transaction, how I was "paying back" the penny I "borrowed." I just shook my head and left, the whole time knowing I'd just been shorted, but not exactly able to reason out why.

(Edit: $11.26 from $20.25 leaves $8.99. He gave me correct change, then took a penny for no reason.)

By the time I got to my car, I was actually mad enough to go back in and demand my penny back. Fortunately for the dude behind the counter, but unfortunately for the entertainment value of this blog, I did not. I just didn't think I'd be able to convince the cashier of his error.

As I drove home, I kept dwelling on it. I wasn't sure what made me more angry: that the kid just didn't "get" why I wanted to borrow a penny, or my inability to correct him after the transaction.

I know a lot of people would just blow it off, reasoning that "it was only a penny." But those people don't know me very well. I still get genuinely excited when I find pennies on the sidewalk. (By the way, I don't go in for any of that heads/tails nonsense. A penny's a penny!) I always look at the date and the mint. I hoard them miserly until I roll and deposit my change. Pennies rule.

I have demanded correct change for a penny before, so that didn't deter me. It was my own innumeracy that kept me from arguing about it. For shame on me!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I Need a New Word

Is there a word for things that are so bad, they're good? How about "Awfsome" or "Terriffible."

My wife has a ritual called "Bad Movie Sunday." This is where she flips through the local channels and finds some mind-numbingly bad movie and watches it. I think you can imagine the kind of drek that is available. Think Weekend at Bernie's or Little Nicky. Being the sophisticated cinephile that I am, this is a habit I've just never understood. Or so I thought.

I had forgotten about my love for disaster movies! Even their premises are horrible! Anyway, I picked up 2012 the other day knowing full well it would be painful to watch. Boy, was I rewarded! This one is a classic!

I have very fond memories of my youth watching cinematic masterpieces like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno. Something crazy always happens, and you never know who is going to survive to the end of the movie.

Unfortunately, modern disaster movies just don't have the same flair. Although I rank Volcano and The Day After Tomorrow pretty damn high on the So-bad-it's-good Meter, but most of the others are just plain bad. All the computer effects just don't have the same impact as a real set of an upside down cruise ship.

Anyway, back to 2012. It does a pretty good job of recapturing that classic '70's badness. Sure, it's got the crazy computer special effects, but what can you do. It also has completely ridiculous plot points and dialog, crazy cameos, over the top sentiment, and at least some suspense regarding who lives or dies.

The biggest problem with modern disaster movies is that they aim too high. Back in the day, they were satisfied to destroy a skyscraper, an airplane, or even a city. These days, they feel like they have to outdo all of that by destroying cities during the opening credits. Of course they have to destroy famous landmarks (a trait shared with monster movies of the '50's), but the number increases every time. 2012 basically destroyed the whole world! Where can they go from that?

Is 2012 a good movie? Not by a long shot. Was I entertained? Immensely! Would I recommend it? Only if you have the right attitude. With a big bucket of popcorn, some beer, and a lazy, rainy afternoon, it's a perfect combo.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Star Wars Improv

I haven't posted a video for a while, so let's see if this one works.

Friday, July 16, 2010

My Father's Health, Part 5: Neurology

Well, I've been putting off posting about my Dad again for over a month. I still haven't completely collected my thoughts or decided exactly what I want to say, but the longer I put it off, the more difficult it will be. A couple of months ago my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.

This was the result I most feared, and yet somewhat expected. He's taking medication (Aricept, I believe) which is supposed to slow down the onset of symptoms. They think they found it early enough to make a difference, but there still isn't a cure.

I've been very reluctant to do the necessary research about the disease and treatment and what to expect in the coming years. I don't think of it as denial, but maybe it is. I accept that he has it, but I just don't feel like learning about it yet. When he was in the hospital back in December/January (See Part 4), he suffered from dementia brought on by "sundowning" and accentuated by a drug he was taking for his bladder. He was very cantankerous, often extremely confused and forgetful. On a number of occasions he didn't even recognize me. That was hard to deal with, but at the time I coped with it very well. I was the one telling the rest of my family that we might have to accept the idea that he might never recover from that. I was very glad to be proven wrong.

But now, it looms on the horizon, which is even worse. Being struck with it suddenly, I had no choice but to deal with it. Now that I have an indeterminate amount of time to prepare, I find myself not wanting to prepare at all. But enough about me.

I'm concerned about my Dad. He's been in and out of the hospital numerous times this past year, and he absolutely hates it. It seems like at least once a month something occurs that requires a hospital visit, and inevitably that extends to a stay of at least a couple nights. He puts on a good face around the doctors and nurses, but he absolutely despises being there, and I don't blame him. The problem, however, is that now he is reluctant to say when something is wrong or to see a doctor for fear that it will put him back in the hospital.

Just this week his home nurse made her visit, and was shocked by how difficult his breathing was. She insisted my Mom take him to the ER, and they found early stage pneumonia. It's been treated and he's been released, but I have no doubt he would never have said anything about having trouble breathing.

But even that isn't really what concerns me. My Dad's depressed. He doesn't like to talk about it with the rest of the family, but he confides in me. I think it's a combination of his poor health, the frequent hospital visits, and the Alzheimer's diagnosis. Which makes me wonder if that was really necessary. I wasn't there when my parents went to the neurologist for the verdict. I can only imagine what the scene was like. My mother is practically deaf, and my father hears only what he wants and often forgets or misses details.

My question is, should the doctor have told him he has Alzheimer's? Wouldn't it have been better for just the rest of us to know and deal with it? Why put that burden on him? My Dad used to volunteer at a local home for Alzheimer's patients, ironically. He knows exactly what to expect (I sometimes wonder if he had a secret suspicion about himself that made him choose that kind of volunteerism). Like most men and most fathers, my Dad likes to be in control. He doesn't believe there are things he can't handle by himself. To be hit with the knowledge that your mind is slowly leaving you must be devastating.

I said my Dad was depressed, but it's more complicated than that. I know he wants to live. I know he wants to get better. But I think he finds it hard to motivate himself when he knows what's coming. He doesn't want to be a burden on his family. All the things he was hoping for the future may never come to pass. He still talks about fixing our old motorboat to take the kids water-skiing. He talks about the chores he needs to do around the house. He talks about getting his strength back in order to drive. Yet at the same time, I think he knows none of those things are ever going to happen. Do I discourage him by reminding him of limitations? Do I feed his delusions and encourage those plans? Currently, I sort of humor him and then try to change the subject.

I don't know how to end this post, which is appropriate since I'm sure there will be many more to come on this subject. I just needed to write something to get some of these thoughts out of my head. Don't worry, I have several more up-beat and strange posts coming, I just wanted to get this one out of the way first.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Run Wild 5K

Whew! This may be my last one for a while. It's just too dang hot. By 7:30 in the morning in Houston, TX it is already 78 degrees with 90% humidity. We've had a lot of rain for the past week, so the humidity is slightly higher than normal. I was really expecting (and hoping, actually) that it would be raining during the race, but alas, no such luck. In fact, the course was designed in such a way that I felt like the sun was shining directly into my eyes no matter which direction I was running!

My stats degraded a bit from last time:
  • Time: 27:25 Pace: 8:51/mile
  • Overall position: 304 out of 807 (37.5%)
  • Men's 40-44 position: 34 out of 63 (54%)
My pace slowed down a bit, but I mostly blame the heat. I also haven't run as much this week as the past several, but I really don't think that had much to do with it. I don't know why they can't organize these things to start around 5:30 in the morning. It might actually be cool then, and I could get back home to take a nap and feel like I haven't wasted the day.

There might be one or two more runs I would be interested in doing this summer, but after today I will really think about whether or not it's worth it. It's just so hot. I should just wait until September when the weather is better, but since I'm running almost every day in this heat, why should a 5K be any different?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Couple More Thoughts

Just a quick note, since I forgot something I wanted to mention about The Invasion from my previous post. The most heinous part of the most recent version was the coda. Yes, she gets her miracle boy to the helicopter, and his blood helps them find a cure. The last scene takes place some time in the future (weeks or months, it's not specific) as they all sit around the breakfast table congratulating themselves on still being alive.

I hate this ending for a couple of reasons. First, it could not feel more Hollywood-tacked-on. The first remake to actually have a happy ending. I guess that's the aughties for you. But the other thing is the unanswered questions it leaves. If all the "body-snatched" people were just suffering from a disease (which was cured), doesn't that make a lot of people murderers? Our heroine killed dozens in the frantic car chase alone.

"Miss Bennell, were you aware at the time that slamming your car into a crowd of people would likely kill many of them?"
"Yes, your honor, but it was self-defense."
"Self-defense? Were they threatening you with bodily harm?"
"No, your honor, but..."
"Were they carrying weapons with the intent to kill you?"
"Not exactly, but..."
"And if they had caught you, the worst that would've happened was that you would go to sleep and wake up with a detached and calmer outlook on life? Is that correct?"
"Well, yeah, but they wanted my boy."

Now that would have been an interesting courtroom drama.

On a completely different note, I absolutely have to share this link. My friend Dale sent it to me yesterday, and it's just wonderful. I've long been a fan of the movie Joe vs. the Volcano. In fact, it is the source of the name of my blog. I know it isn't a great movie, but still I love it beyond rationality. Here, the writer posts a beautiful defense of the movie, and even goes to say it is Tom Hanks' best performance. Check it out: The Best Role: Tom Hanks.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Invasion of the Mind Snatchers

Well, I did it. I finally finished my marathon viewing of all movie iterations of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Actually, I did most of this a couple of years ago. I put them on my Netflix queue when The Invasion first came out. I thought I'd be through them just in time for its DVD release. Then I heard how bad the most recent version was, so I just stopped after the first three. Well, my friend Dale said that didn't count. I had to watch them all. Ugh. So I reluctantly queued it up again and sat myself down for some pain. At first, it wasn't that bad, but then... well, I'll save that for the end of this post. Even though it is definitely the freshest in my mind, I think it's probably important to go through these chronologically.

By the way, if you've never seen any of these movies (or haven't figured out the plots just from their titles), here is my obligatory spoiler warning.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The original. The classic? I'm not sure. I definitely liked it, but it's still a cheesy B-movie. The whole story is told in flashback (which is easy to forget during the movie). Our narrator first appears to be a crazed maniac, but we quickly see that he wasn't always that way. Alien plants landed in his small home town and slowly started replacing people with mindless duplicates. Although mindless isn't exactly the right word. They still talk and act, but they've been completely brainwashed and act like they've just taken a big dose of Valium.

The beauty of this film is almost all tied into the setting into which is was released. Fear and paranoia were starting to erode the post-WWII elation. Fear of communism, McCarthyism, and witch hunts; fear of atomic weapons, bomb shelters, and "Duck and Cover." This film plays right into all of that. Could you tell if your neighbor was a pod person? Could you tell if he were a Commie? Fear of the unknown-- is it safe to explore space? Fear of the outsider-- why isn't Bob acting like all the rest of us?

The key, of course, is not to fall asleep. They can only duplicate you when you sleep, so just stay awake. What a fantastic device! Not only is a great metaphor for complacency vs. vigilance, it also leads to the natural mind games brought on by sleep deprivation. Did that really happen, or does he just thinks it happened because he hasn't slept in five days?

I'll give this one five stars. Probably it only deserves three, but I'll bump it up a couple for its period, campiness, and originality.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
This is the first remake with Donald Sutherland. It actually manages to have a fairly nice surprise at the end, which has since been ruined by an internet meme. The plot is still the same: alien plants, mindless duplicates, don't fall asleep. But this time they spend a little more time focusing on the how of it.

I really love how this movie is also a reflection of the times in which is was released. Not only did it have more special effects (which was all the rage in Hollywood after Star Wars), but it also had an interesting view of science. Leonard Nimoy plays a hipster, book-promoting psychologist (I think?), and it's hard to tell if we're supposed to "grok" him or distrust him.

And that leads me to the weird part-- what's the fear? In the original, most see it as an allegory about communism, but couldn't it also be supporting individualism? Here, we're in the '70's, the Me Generation. They already threw down "the man" in the '60's, man, now it's time to boogie. One of the things I like about this one is that the characters all seem so arrogant, even in the face of an alien plague. Maybe the movie was trying to say that we're all just as doomed if we only look out for ourselves. Not a condemnation of individuality, necessarily, but of selfishness.

I give this one three stars. I'd recommend it, and it's definitely entertaining, but the dated-ness of the '70's isn't nearly as charming as the dated-ness of the '50's.

Body Snatchers (1993)
The lesser known remake. I'm having a bit of trouble remembering the details about this one, but I do remember I liked it. They took the original story and made many tweaks to it, making it feel completely new. Sure, there's still alien pods and duplicates, but the trappings are different.

First of all, instead of a middle aged man as a protagonist, we get a teenage girl. And rather than a small town or large city, she's stuck on a military base. This is especially interesting because the whole point of the military is to break down individuals and remake them into cohesive units. But also, being on a military base introduces something that was pretty absent in the previous two: weapons. This film has much more action and 'splosions than the other two.

But what was there to fear in the '90's? The obvious theme is increased militarism from the Reagan era, but I think that's secondary. Despite the more dramatic setting, I think this one is actually more personal. I think it deals best with the conflicting ideas of being an individual versus being an outsider. In the first film, they don't believe the narrator because he's acting like a loon. Here, they don't believe her because she's just a kid, something we can all partly identify with.

I'll give this one four stars. It's a good action movie, a good horror movie, and an overlooked film.

The Invasion (2007)
Ugh. Again, same plot. Like the first sequel, more time spent "explaining" the problem, more pointless special effects. Protagonist is a female looking out for her child. The film starts in medias res, just so we can flashback a few days and watch it lead to those same scenes (which are played again). I really, really hate this trope. I am so sick of movies and/or TV shows that show something, then have a title card with "Three days earlier" or whatever. It is a complete waste, and very poor storytelling. Okay, off soapbox, back to movie.

The interesting thing about this movie, and what made me think I was enjoying it part way through it, was the perceived target of the fear. Communism, then individualism, then militarism; in this one, I think they're attacking indifference. At the beginning of the movie, there are many shots of hundreds of people walking the streets of DC, completely oblivious to everyone around them. After the pods get a hold of them, they are much more quiet. They stand still. They pay attention. As in the other films, the heroes try to "pass" as converted. It's interesting what advice she is given here: "Don't show emotion," "Make direct eye contact." As the pods take over, the ones who can't fake it scream and plead for help, while everyone around them ignores them (whether they're pod-people or not). That's pretty scary, and pretty normal in our modern world.

But instead of being intellectually stimulating or offering more social commentary, this movie devolves into an action movie. You see, it's just a disease. Science can cure it. Her son is immune, so he can be used to save the world! We're finally treated to a high speed chase, in which Nicole Kidman's goal is literally to "GET HIM TO ZEE CHOPPAH!!!" So sad. I think this one really had some possibilities, and it just totally blew it.

One star. It's terrible. Don't be suckered into having your own marathon, this one really isn't worth it.

Well, I suppose if I were a professional blog writer, I would have done a lot more research, thorough analysis, and structured organization of my thoughts. Unfortunately for you, I didn't. I just kind of scrambled together my thoughts and put them out there. Maybe as I get more regular at this, I'll do a better a job at putting up more polished posts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dog Tired

There are 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in a minute, yet we divide seconds into hundredths. Does that seem strange to you?

These are some of the random thoughts I have while running. I don't like to listen to my iPod when I run, so I'm stuck with my own inner soundtrack. Sometimes this can be a good thing; other times, my thoughts get in a rut thinking the same thoughts over and over (just like a bad song). I really should listen to some of the many podcasts I have trouble finding time for, but I just don't like running with artificial sound. I'd rather be alert to my surroundings, not to mention my own labored breathing.

I like my running route, for now. I leave the house, run to (and around) the park, then back. It totals 1.5 miles. Usually, I take Flower with me for the first lap, then drop her off at home so I can have a little peace for my second lap. When I feel like a longer run, I can just add a lap or two.

This morning I ran 3.0 miles in 25:34, which is about an 8:30 mile. I'm very pleased, especially since I wasn't particularly trying to increase my pace. Our dog, Flower, helps a lot in that regard. She's always raring to go, and could easily outrun me if it weren't for the leash. By the way, I haven't been keeping up with her kill stats lately, so I apologize. She's taken out five squirrels now. However, she suffered a serious injury to her armpit while jumping up against the fence a couple of months ago, so I'm going to put the score at 5-1.

That's about all I have to report. I'm trying to do a little better about posting more frequently instead of just throwing out huge posts. I still have two that are churning around in my brain, so hopefully at least one of them will make it out this week.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Why Iron Man 2 Doesn't Work

I liked the first Iron Man. I thought it was fun with simple good vs. evil and dazzling effects. I thought it was good, but not great. I had low expectations for the second film. I only hoped to be as entertained as I was the first time. Instead, I was actually quite disappointed. It was okay, but not good. Sure, the effects were again pretty amazing, and there were lots of 'splosions, but something about it was just wrong. Recently, I think I discovered why-- the screenplay doesn't match the directing.

I only listen to two podcasts about film: Filmspotting and Creative Screenwriting. I love them both for completely different reasons, but I highly recommend them. In FS episode #301, they talk about Iron Man 2. I won't bother to rehash everything they said (besides, it's far too entertaining to listen to it straight from the source), but in the end they were disappointed as well. They mentioned things like not caring about the characters and the dialog being too flippant.

Just this past week I was catching up with old CS podcasts, and I came across this quote from Jon Favreau (the director) at an Iron Man 2 round table discussion:
We looked at the successful film sequels that we liked ... The two that we liked the most... were Wrath of Khan and Empire Strikes Back. Those are the two that we said, "They did it right. Now let's look at what they did right."
Although he didn't say so, I have no doubt that Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight were also on their radar.

What do those films have in common? Aside from generally being the fan favorites of the series, they're also considered the most dark. That admission from Mr. Favreau is what made it all click for me in my head.

When the reviews for Iron Man came out, a lot of the positive buzz mentioned that it was "light" and "fun" (especially when compared to Dark Knight). It was a great way to start off the summer blockbuster season. But the interesting thing to me is that it actually contains several dark elements:
  • Tony Stark kidnapped and tortured
  • Multiple deaths and violence due to war
  • An over-the-top evil father-figure who not only uses a neural paralysis device, but also attempts to kill Tony by ripping his heart out.
All of these are pretty serious. And they're handled seriously in the film. But surrounding those elements, we have Tony learning to fly, neat computer graphics, a cool suit, and generally good times. The audience doesn't dwell on the negatives, because there are more positives to uplift.

Now let's look at some of the dark themes in IM2:
  • Government trying to confiscate the suit
  • Dangerous alcoholism by Tony
  • Tony's best friend Roady betrays him and steals an earlier suit in order to weaponize it.
  • A mad Russian has not only duplicated the technology, but is also trying to kill Tony...
  • ...because it turns out that Tony's dad (in addition to being John Slattery/Walt Disney) was a crook who cut out the Russian's father's participation in creating the device.
Those are some pretty dark and serious themes, and the list doesn't even include the rival arms manufacturer who commissions super robots that terrorize civilians at the public expo!

So, why doesn't it work? Because the serious elements of the story are brushed away, discussed flippantly, or just plain ignored. It is okay to have both dramatic and comedic elements in the same film. In fact, I would argue that the best films (of both types) almost always have a degree of both. The first Iron Man was able to pull it off. The problem here is that the director seemed to be addressing the dramatic themes with a light-hearted, comedic style. And that just doesn't work.

I'm not a big Favreau fan, but I believe he is a competent director. His decisions here really confuse me. When Whiplash is terrorizing the Monaco Gran Prix, literally slicing cars in half in his attempt to exact revenge on Tony, why did he interject the chauffeur (played by Favreau) speeding on the track with Pepper? Is it comic relief to see them dodging head on traffic? Are we supposed to be laughing when Tony gets smashed at his party and abuses the suit to entertain his guests? He contemplates the betrayal of his friend by hanging out in a giant donut? What is going on here?

I blame the director here because he sets the tone on the set. He tells the actors what sort of mood he is looking for. It is great for a movie to have ups and downs, an emotional roller coaster. But it is not good for it to do both at the same time, in which case you get a merry-go-round-- flat, uneventful, going nowhere with no surprises.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Houston Heights 5K

Last Saturday, I ran another 5K. Just like last year, the Houston Heights Fun Run fell on the weekend after the Astros Race for the Pennant. I kinda like having two races on consecutive weekends. It's like having a second chance when you don't feel like you did well the first time.

My stats this time were a definite improvement over last week's run:
  • Time: 26:18 Pace: 8:30/mile
  • Overall position: 266 out of 858 (top 31%)
  • Men's 40-44 position: 27 out of 53 (51%)
However, that time is only about 15 seconds better than last year's time. If I can get back to my habit of running five times a week, I think I'll have a better chance of improving my time.

When I hit the first mile marker, my pace was actually a minute faster than usual. But instead of continuing on like that, I decided to slow it down to make sure I didn't burn out too fast. It was really hot and humid (shocking for Houston, I know), but the course is very flat and shaded. It's a nice out-and-back route down the main street of one of the older neighborhoods. It's really a nice little run.
The big deal this year, however, was that for the first time ever my wife Karen joined me. We have a "couple" friends who have been trying to run for a while, and they encouraged her to join us. It made it a lot more fun. I was very proud of her for doing the race, and at a pretty decent pace as well.

Even though they all run at a much slower pace than me, it was great to be there to cheer them on when they made it to the end. It's also nice to have people to hang out with afterward. Usually, I'm by myself so I just grab a banana and head on back home.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Race for the Pennant 5K

This past weekend I ran my second 5K for this year, and I wasn't too pleased with the results. They're not bad, I know, but they weren't as good as I was expecting.

The Race for the Pennant is the laughable title of this run, since it is co-sponsored by the Houston Astros and finishes inside Minute Maid Park. Since the Astros seem to be already eliminated from the real pennant, I wasn't too worried about winning this one either.

My stats:
  • Time: 27:36 Pace: 8:55/mile
  • Overall position: 676 out of 2437
  • Men's 40-44 position: 55 out of 123
Compared to my last run, my time is only one second different, but my placement is completely different. My overall position is about 100 spots higher than the total runners in that last one.

I'm also disappointed that my time this year is about 16 seconds slower than it was for the same race last year. That isn't a big difference by any means, but during the run I really felt like my time would be better.

I have another run coming up this weekend, so we'll see how I do on that one. It's a flat course in the shade, so that should help. I'm also planning to really push myself more training this week than I usually do.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Game Themes: The Response


For those of you who read my blog but don't care about boardgames (or especially game theory), you may want to give this post a pass. It's rather long, and it covers some pretty niche subject matter.

For those of you who came to my blog for this article but are looking for more discussions of boardgames, tough luck. I've linked to several great ones, but this isn't specifically a gaming blog, and I've rarely posted about games here. However, I might have to change that for the future.
Okay, so, only the die-hards are left, right? Great! Let's get this show on the road!

Where to Begin

First and foremost, if you haven't heard Mark Johnson's original podcast from Boardgames To Go, you need to listen to it before continuing. I don't want to rehash everything we said there; I'd rather concentrate on the comments we received online.

But I do want to level the playing field a little by mentioning some basic tenets of the discussion:
  • All games are abstractions.
  • Some games have strong themes.
  • Not everyone agrees on which ones.
These were the three basic ideas which got me started thinking about this whole Theme as Narrative/Theme as Metaphor discussion. To me, that last statement meant there was something wrong. Clearly, not everyone agreed on what constituted "theme." We needed a better definition of what "theme" really meant. My idea was to divide theme into two separate categories or qualities. The important thing to remember here is that it is just my opinion, my outlook. It is not based on any scientific data other than my own observation, which is clearly tainted by my perspective.


Before we go any further, I want to make a little aside to talk about my perspective. There are two things which I am pretty biased about which will come into play frequently in this discussion: cards and dice.

I read a wonderful book many years ago full of pop philosophy about post-modernism and metaphysics. It's called Reality Isn't What It Used to Be, and you can pick it up used for pennies on Amazon. I recommend it for a thought-provoking read, though I wonder if it now reads as dated or prescient.

Anyway, at one point in the book the author talks about how "meta" money is in the modern world. It began as pure barter and trade, my cow for your chickens. Then as gold and silver became valued, coinage could "represent" the actual commodities, thereby becoming "meta." Later, we developed paper currency, which represented the gold and silver, making it meta-meta. Now, we have credit cards and electronic payments in which case money is now meta-meta-meta! We have no trouble understanding all these levels of meaning for money. We just accept it and take it for granted (I have no doubt the author said it much better than I).

My point is, that's how I feel about cards and dice. They are so common as game mechanisms/mechanics that we don't think about how meta they are. (I actually had all of this in my notes for the podcast, but our conversation strayed, as good conversations often do.)

If you want randomness or luck in your game, dice are perfect. Want to change the odds? Go from 6- to 10- to 12- to 20-sided dice and beyond. Want to change the outcome? Use modifiers to add or subtract from the total. You can roll multiple dice or roll multiple times. Dice are incredibly flexible and useful in so many ways.

Cards, to me, represent choice. Yes, there is certainly still randomness and "luck of the draw," but having a hand of cards mitigates that. Most people think of cards only in the standard four-suited, 2-10, J, Q, K, A variety. But for those of us in this hobby, we know how much more they can be. Cards can represent anything! They can be actions you can perform, they can be places you can travel, they can be goods you can trade.

My point is, whenever I see cards or dice in a game, that's already one level of abstraction, of "meta-"phor.

Use Your Words

So, as I said before, in my mind, theme is divided into two types, which I labeled "Metaphor" and "Narrative." I don't remember exactly how I described the difference in the podcast, but apparently I did a pretty poor job. Most people who commented disagreed more with the terminology than with the concept.

Over on Boardgamegeek, Mark Johnson started a poll to get his listeners' take on how games ranked in each category. Although the poll may have been misguided and not particularly helpful, the open forum discussion was great. I tried to address some of the questions, but I don't feel I did a very good job. Anyway, I want to quote how I described the difference there:
"I can think of many other ways to express what I was thinking. Theme as Story Telling and Theme as Learning Tool; Goal-oriented and Task-oriented; What and How.

When I say, 'The goal of this game is to make your palace the most beautiful by hiring the best craftsmen, artisans, and materials available'-- That's narrative.

When I say, 'You need money to buy materials (represented by these cubes), which can be refined by craftsmen (exchanged for different cubes), and then put in your palace by artisans (exchange particular cube sets for cards of value)'-- That's metaphor."
Those may not be perfect explanations either, but I just wanted to call attention to the simplified definitions. Narrative is what you are trying to do. Metaphor is how you go about doing it.

Most people had problems with my use/definition of Metaphor. However, I want to call attention to Eryn Roston's fantastic post on his blog, The Magic Circle. He is one of the few people who really got what I was trying to say, but had a problem with the Narrative aspect of it. He clarified it very well like this:
"If Pettit's theory is to remain useful it needs further clarification. The narrative theme is ultimately the game's story and a story is based on the actions of it's characters. The narrative theme is not only the game's setting, but it's the actions afforded to the players within the course of play. If we accept that that narrative theme is not only "what this game is about" but also "what the players can do", we have a much more concrete way evaluating it, AND it can remain independent of metaphorical theme. It becomes a more powerful tool for evaluation."
I like that a lot, and not just because he used the phrase "Pettit's theory."

However, like I said, most people had difficulty with my concept of metaphor. Chris Norwood tried to help me out with a post on his blog, GamerChris, in which he helps to redefine them:
Theme as Metaphor - a schema involving some out-of-game situation on which play is based. The degree to which knowledge about this schema will translate into understanding of the game determines the strength of the theme.

Theme as Narrative
- the ability for play to create a story. The degree to which this story is compelling and memorable determines the strength of this theme.
I like both of these definitions as well. His phrase "out-of-game situation" leads me back to a comment made on the BGG poll by Snoozefest:
"So you're saying that for these games, the mechanisms don't relate well to reality?"
At first, I really didn't like that comment, and I replied in a rather snarky way (my apologies). However, the more I thought about what he was saying, the better I could understand what he meant. By the way, Snoozefest also has a cool podcast in which he "splains" rules to games.

What I finally concluded was that I was using the wrong words. Instead of "High" and "Low" metaphor, I really should be talking about "Appropriate" and "Inappropriate." Metaphors all relate to reality. That's pretty much what they do. But are the mechanisms appropriate to the actions they represent?

This particular discussion came up because of Twilight Struggle. To me, because of my bias towards cards explained above, choosing from a hand of cards to determine events is a very poor metaphor for performing actions at home and abroad to spread your political agenda. In reality, how would you know the outcome of events before you did them? How could you choose between events to make sure they occur in the right order? Don't get me wrong, I love Twilight Struggle. But I just think the metaphor is very weak, or to use the proper term, "inappropriate."

My friend Steve Bonario, who is part of my weekly game group, added this comment to the discussion:
"I like the concept of narrative as you discussed it in the podcast, but I prefer the axis of abstraction vs realism instead of metaphor, since all games are ultimately metaphors. And I don't think theme lies on the same axis as narrative, it's more of a separate 'property' of the game. I would put mechanical as the adjective on the other end of the axis from narrative. (A game like Hearts is almost purely mechanical; a game like Werewolf almost purely narrative; and theme is separate from both.)"
That's a good observation, and it leads me pretty well into the next topic I want to discuss.

Axis of Evil

I ran some of this by Mark Johnson in an email last week. Although he is far too polite to actually say so, I got the impression he thought I was going over the deep end. To him, my talk about two axes and quadrants and all that other nonsense will do more to confuse the issue than clarify it. Nevertheless, I'm going there anyway.

In my mind, the scales of theme as Metaphor and theme as Narrative run perpendicular to each other. I'd put Metaphor vertically, with Highly Appropriate at the top, and Very Inappropriate at the bottom. On the horizontal Narrative axis, I'd have Low (or pure Actions) on the left, and High (pure Storytelling) on the right. In my mind, this is all fairly clear. Unfortunately/Fortunately, the rest of the world doesn't live in my mind.

Again, back to the BGG poll, Frank Feldman put together this graphic:
It's not perfect (I don't like how he labeled the quadrants at all), but it's pretty much what I envisioned. Snoozefest commented that if all games fell basically upon that red line, then there really shouldn't be quadrants. He suggested moving the axes to produce a graph like this:

Now this one I didn't like at all. I was having trouble articulating why, until Snoozefest and Frank started talking about the 0,0 point on the axes, and the concept of "negative theme" on the first graph. Then it all became clear to me.

As I said at the beginning of the podcast, all games have theme, it's just a matter of degree. All games have both types of theme, just to varying degree. So instead of thinking of the grid as numbers (+5 x -3), try thinking of the grid as colors:Left to right is our old friend Roy G. Biv, and up and down is Black and White. No one would deny that any place on the grid isn't a color. The same should count for themes. The whole grid is theme, but they have different amounts of story and mechanisms.

So, a challenge I set for myself was to try to think of games that fell all over the grid. There are sections that are pretty sparse. Does this mean that my theory is wrong? Not necessarily. It could just be that games are better, more popular, stick around longer, if they fall into certain parameters.

If we say that a "Highly Appropriate" metaphor/mechanism relates very closely to reality, and an Inappropriate one does not, and a "Weak Narrative" means just basic, unconnected actions and "Strong" means a full story arc, what games can we describe?
Top Left: High App., Weak Narr.: This is the hardest one. I basically came up with Charades. Your actions are very similar to reality. However, the story of the game is to just guess clues to get points.

Bottom Left: Inapp., Weak Narr.: Almost all "abstract" games would fall here. Your actions don't represent anything, and the story is basically do what is necessary to win. Something like Yahtzee scores a little higher on metaphor simply because you are supposedly making Poker hands (which is funny, considering how "themeless" poker is).

Top Right: High App., Strong Narr.: This is the sweet spot. This is where you want your game to be. Let's say Reef Encounter.

Bottom Right: Inapp., Strong Narr.: This is where there's considerable debate. To me, Twilight Struggle would be here. Another perhaps more acceptable entry would be Tales of the Arabian Nights.
I'm going to end this right here for a couple of reasons. 1) I can't remember everything else I was going to write, and 2) I'm really late for game night!

The whole point of the podcast was to spark discussion, and on that point at least, I think we succeeded. I just love to think and talk about board games, so thank you all for indulging me.

© New Blogger Templates | Webtalks