Monday, November 30, 2015

TV Review: Burn Notice Season Seven

Burn Notice Season Seven created by Matt Nix

Burn Notice is a television series about CIA agent Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) who was "burned" or dumped from active service because he was suspected of wrongdoing. He wound up in Miami where he reconnected with some old friends (an ex-IRA girlfriend (Gabriel Anwar) and an ex-Navy Seal best friend (Bruce Campbell)) and his mom (Sharon Gless). The story started as a semi-comic drama about his life helping out people as he tries to find out who burned him so he can clear his name and lead a normal life. Of course, if he does find the person and clear his name the series would end, so he never quite manages it. By season seven, the show lost most of the comedy (but not all of it, possibly due to Bruce Campbell being there) and fell into a rut where Michael would infiltrate some secret organization by working with some semi-crazy person. That person would get killed when Michael found out about and started working for that person's slightly more crazy supervisor. Some seasons had him go up quite a few levels to get to the big boss at the end of the season.

By the start of season seven, Michael and his family and friends have been imprisoned by the CIA. Michael agrees to work for them so that his people can get out of jail. His assignment is to infiltrate a terrorist organization running out of the Dominican Republic (so at least they get out of Miami for a lot of episodes). He works his way up the chain throughout the season. It is a bit of plot recycling much like the last few seasons of Alias and was a little disappointing to me. The story does take Michael to the point where he might actually join the terrorists, giving a lot of melodramatic scenes for the cast. Sometimes the cast does a good job of selling those scenes, sometimes they don't. The last two episodes of the series are very exciting and give a dramatically satisfying end to the series, also much like Alias. Unfortunately, viewers need to watch the episodes leading up to those last two. The plot is so complicated that it might be hard to understand what's going on without all the set up. If you think the Alias finale was worth watching the last season, this last season of Burn Notice is worth it (and only half as long at thirteen episodes).

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Dora The Explorer in Germany

No, this is not some double-length episode available only on DVD coming in 2006! It's one of the things we saw during a trip to Germany. J was sick on the last day, so we stayed at the hotel and watched some TV. They have a German Nick Jr. channel and on it is Dora the Explorer, simply called Dora.

Anyone who has seen the English version of the show knows that a central element is Dora's bi-lingual life. She speaks English and Spanish, as do some of her friends. A few only speak Spanish, notably the transportation guru Tico the Squirrel. If Dora needs a boat, car, or hot air balloon, Tico is sure to show up in the nick of time to help her out.

The odd thing about the German version of the show is that Dora speaks perfect German. Even odder was the part of the episode where they needed some transportation and Tico showed up spouting the perfectly English phrase, "Hi guys, I can take you where you need to go!" Hearing Tico speak English was flabbergasting to me and my wife. The children were unphased by this shocking turn of events. English is clearly the second "bi-lingual" language in the German version.

To see a list of the international versions of Dora with their language pairs, go here.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Naughts and Zeds: Black Friday

Naughts and Zeds is an ongoing series of posts on the differences between language, culture, and everyday items in America and in Britain. For a list of previous posts, go here.

Black Friday is a popular if crazy day in America. It's the day after Thanksgiving and is typically the beginning of the mad shopping rush leading up to Christmas. Stores have big sales and open very early. Some stores go overboard and start their sales Thanksgiving Night, which is wrong in all sorts of ways. The shopping experience is usually sheer pandemonium with people fighting over very popular and/or very cheap items. I generally avoid the situation since I don't like shopping anyway.

I was surprised to read in a local paper (back when I lived in Britain, boy this post is long overdue) that Britain has its own Black Friday. This is the Friday before Christmas. That night is the busiest night for restaurants, pubs, police, and paramedics. People go out for their office or work parties that night, creating a high demand in both good and bad ways. The night is also known as Mad Friday or Builders Friday. Mad because people indulge a little too much. Builders because it's the traditional day for building sites to close for the holidays and everyone takes home their last paycheck, or maybe they don't take it home directly. I general avoid the situation since I am completely ignorant of it!

Happy shopping to those Americans crazy enough to get up in the middle of the night to shop at Walmart!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

One Ingredient Challenge: Granola Bars

Part of an ongoing series of cooking from scratch. That is, we cook something from basic items that don't have multiple ingredients (e.g. store-bought spaghetti sauce includes all sorts of spices and maybe other stuff too; we'd start with tomatoes and individual spices and add them together to make our own sauce). See other challenges here.

L and Mommy whipped up some granola bars from scratch for the One Ingredient Challenge back in the summer--summer of 2013 that is. This is another old post in celebration of Thanksgiving. We are celebrating by giving the readers some leftovers from our European adventures. Anyway, on to the granola bars!

L the mix master

We followed a simple recipe that included oats, raisins, almonds, honey, butter, etc. The nut ingredient was optional in two senses. First, the cook can include nuts or not. Second, if including nuts, they could be almonds or cashews or pecans or any other tasty option. We went with almonds.

Sadly, we did not keep a copy of the recipe, so I don't know the proper amounts of each ingredient. They were fun to mix and spread into our cake pans. Then they went into the oven for a good long while (again, no recipe.)

Into the oven!

Readers may be wondering why we don't have the recipe. The truth is that the bars did not turn out well. We burned one pan and the other wasn't very tasty. And clean up of the pans was a lot of work too (a factor many recipes fail to take into account, along with ingredient prep times, but that's another complaint I'll make on another day).

We hope your Thanksgiving is much more satisfying (and easy to clean up) than these granola bars!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Icon from Crete

While visiting Crete we hoped to buy an icon. We have no real advice on how to shop for one. We went to an religious goods shop in Heraklion, a town on the north shore of the island. Selecting an icon was a little challenging. It would have been nice to get an icon of one of our patron saints but we couldn't decide on which of the four of us. We weren't going to buy four icon. A long time ago in America I'd seen an icon of the Wedding Feast at Cana but the store didn't have any. The lady recommended one for scholars, featuring three of the greats of the Eastern Church.

Click to enlarge

On the icon are the Three Holy Hierarchs--Saints Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nazianzen. They were bishops in the 300s who had a major impact on Christian theology through their teaching and their holy lives. In the Eastern Church, they have a special feast day on January 30 dedicated to all three. They are venerated in the Western Church as doctors of the church but do not have a combined feast day.

Icons themselves have an interesting history. As an artistic tradition, they grew out of the Egyptian mummy portraits of the first to fourth centuries AD. These portraits featured large eyes and formal settings, a step away from the naturalistic depictions of Roman and Greek art from the same time. The style also flows from the Platonic tradition of the world of idealized Forms, so that the icons represent archetypes of Christ or Mary or whatever they portray. The images invoked the sort of reverence that could be misconstrued as idolatry, leading Emperor Leo III of Byzantium to start the first wave on iconoclasm in 726. The persecution lasted for about one hundred years. Afterwards, the Byzantine church spread north through Eastern Europe all the way to current-day Russia. They brought the tradition of making icons with them.

Of course, icons are not considered art properly in the East, they are a way of praying for both the artisan and the viewer. The icon is incarnational, communicating a spiritual reality through material means. The icon gives a focal point and rich details for meditating on the person or event depicted. It raises the mind and heart to God, the classical definition of prayer.

In other ancient icon news, I bought one in Jerusalem when I visited back in 2000. I'd been looking for a Nativity but I had special criteria. Most icons have Saint Joseph off in a corner moping which I don't particularly care for. I understand the theology behind it--he's not the father of the baby. But surely he wasn't whiny about it. He accepted his position and worked hard to do what he needed to do. I came across an icon where he was by the manger and knew I had to get it right away. It's a triptych which we usually open for the Christmas season.

Nativity icon closed (click to enlarge)

Nativity icon open (click to enlarge)

Of course, photos never do justice to icons, so don't miss an opportunity if you can see them. Eastern rite churches are loaded with icons, including the iconostasis that separates the nave from the sanctuary. Symbolically, it's a doorway between earth and heaven. It includes images of Jesus, Mary, the evangelists, the patriarchs, the apostles, and the patron of the church. It's worth the visit, plus there's probably other icons around the church.

Read more about icons in this slim, illustrated volume:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dual/Duel Review: Amelie Poulain vs. Edith Piaf

Dual/Duel reviews are an online smackdown between two books, movies, games, podcasts, etc. etc. that I think are interesting to compare, contrast, and comment on. For a list of other dual/duel reviews, go here. Also, this is more of the leftovers from Europe this week.

Inspired by our trip to Paris we watched some Paris-based movies, Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (known in America simply as Amelie) and La môme (known in America as La Vie en Rose). Both movies are French productions, set (at least in part) in Montmartre (where we had our hotel), and award-winning movies.

The first film is a bit of a fantasy about Amelie, a girl who grows up with overprotective and slightly bonkers parents. She retreats into a world of her own imaging to cope, and continues to do so as an adult. A chance discovery of a hidden box of toys sets her on the path to connect with others in a more meaningful way, including a potential boyfriend. The movie is very light-hearted and charming. Amelie herself is irresistibly charming. It's hard not to root for her. The movie is a fun, life-affirming fantasy.

The second film is a biography of French singer Edith Piaf. Her life story is told in a mixed-up chronological order. She is born to a circus performer and an alcoholic mother. She is raised at different times by these two, in addition to her grandmother who runs a brothel. Piaf's life is full of tragedy and heartache (some of which is self-inflicted). The story of her rise to fame and subsequent efforts to keep performing holds the viewers' interest but ultimately is full of lots of misery. She's somewhat sympathetic if ultimately unlikeable, as is Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. I can't help drawing a parallel between the two character and wonder at why I like the movie about Kane more than this one about Piaf. But that's an argument for another post. The movie is a gritty historical biography.

I enjoyed Amelie a great deal more than La Vie en Rose, which in a certain sense makes it a better movie. If I had to rewatch one, Amelie would win that match-up several times. The movie has a more artistic visual style and the likable protagonist is much easier to watch. So the win goes to Amelie Poulain!



Monday, November 23, 2015

Tea Time with Taylor's

I recently discovered some old posts that were more or less finished drafts but never got posted. I celebration of Thanksgiving, this week will have some European leftovers. First up, a taste of England. Look forward to more European-inspired but neglected posts for the rest of the week!

I went to a presentation on tea presented by Victoria, a nice lady from Taylors of Harrogate, purveyor of tea and coffee, including the famous Yorkshire Tea. She presented some history and trivia about tea as well as providing several different brews to sample.

She said that Taylors produces around 40 types of teas, from black to red to green. She asked us what we thought the average tea consumption was for England. The answer was 60.2 billion cups a year. Then she asked about US consumption. The US consumes only 65 billion cups a year, which is surprising since the UK population is around 60 million and the US population 310 million.

Tea was first invented in China 5000 years ago. The emperor Feng Shun had been banished. In exile, he would only drink boiling water. One day a leaf fell into the water before it was served to him. It changed the flavor and eased his heart, hence it was called "Tai" which is Chinese for peace. Gunpowder tea is a closest to this original form. The tea is unfermented with a slightly sharp flavor. The tea gets its name from the shape of the leaves. When they are dried out they "ball up" into little nuggets that look like gunpowder.

The next advance in tea making also happened in China. As tea became popular, there was pressure to provide the dried leaves of the tree faster and faster. One fellow found that the leaves would not dry overnight, or sometimes would be damp with dew. To combat this, he set a fire in his tea drying room. He used bamboo and the smoke from the fire gave a distinctive flavor to the tea. Thus Lapsang Souchang came to be, a smoky black tea that is a personal favorite of mine.

In 1603 the Dutch received the first tea. They brought it back to Europe. The French never cottoned on to tea, but the British began to adopt it. Charles II's neice caused it to become quite popular when she started drinking tea with her breakfast rather than beer. You may blame or praise Queen Anne decision depending on your taste.

Earl Grey tea is named after the second earl, who was prime minister under William IV. The most reliable story goes that he was gifted by a Chinese ambassador with a tea infused with bergamot oil to offset the lime in the water of his country estate. Lady Grey would offer the blend in London and it wasn't long before a demand grew. The tea is often used in cooking to flavor rice or cakes.

Often teas have been blended with other oils or flowers to produce healing properties in the drinks. So occasionally flavors are associated with teas that don't come from the tea leaves. One example is Moroccan Mint, which adds mint extract to gunpowder tea leaves to create a distinctive flavor. 

Tea bushes grow in fifty countries. The bushes could grow to a height of forty to fifty feet but most growers keep them around four or five feet to make harvesting easier. Higher altitudes make better growing conditions (that emperor was exiled to the Himalayas, perhaps). India is a prime grower now. Darjeeling is the most expensive Indian tea. The robust flavor and the high price have made it the champagne of teas. More common is Assam which originated in a region 300 miles north of Calcutta.

As for Yorkshire tea, it is a blend of east African and Indian teas (and I thought they were grown in Yorkshire--whoops!). Charles Taylor started a business in 1866, importing teas. He had some kiosks in Leeds where they sold tea and coffee. He also opened the first Betty's Tea Room in Harrogate, which has subsequently turned into a chain of tea shops in Yorkshire.

At the end of her presentation, Victoria had a bag of different items that were related to tea. Here's some of the items:
  • Dust pan--because the finest tea is often little larger than dust particles. Having bought much loose-leaf tea in my life, I can attest to this.
  • Drum--teas are blended in large drums, though they only turn the drum twelve times at Taylors.
  • Trowel--used tea bags are good for gardens.
  • Silk--the first tea bags were made with silk!
  • Whiskey--often in the Victorian and pre-Victorian eras, if you ordered whiskey or beer, you really meant tea.
  • Face cream--green tea extracts are often used in cosmetics like face cream.
  • Sea shell--fancy tea spoons are often scallop-shaped, probably from sailors using shells to scoop out tea.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Movie Review: Predator (1987)

Predator (1987) directed by John McTiernan

Arnold Schwarzenegger (his character has a name, but let's be honest, Arnold is playing Arnold) and his crew of commandos is called into a Central American jungle to extract a cabinet member whose helicopter crashed in hostile country. They fly in and discover things aren't as Arnold was told. They find three skinned corpses of a previous extraction team. And no cabinet member. They do find an invisible hunter who is offing Arnold's crew one by one. Can they make it back out of the jungle, or will only Arnold survive?

The movie is a great action picture. There's enough plot to string everything together and the villain, the mostly unseen (until the end) Predator, is menacing and effective. The special effects, even though they are almost thirty years old, hold up. John McTiernan's direction is straightforward and doesn't distract from the story or the action. Schwarzenegger gives a good performance as himself, though he doesn't have as many cheesy one-liners as in other of his '80s action films, which can be good or bad depending on how you feel about that kind of humor.

Predator is a fun Friday night action romp.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Game Review: Dead of Winter by Plaid Hat Games

Dead of Winter designed by Isaac Vega and Jon Gilmour, published by Plaid Hat Games

People want to play zombie games for two (not necessarily inclusive or exclusive) reasons: to survive under extreme conditions and to kill lots of zombies. Most games cater to the later reason but Dead of Winter gives players the chance to try out their survival skills. The game has a colony board (which is the players' home base) and six locations where they can gather supplies (food, fuel, weapons, other people, etc.) but risk being killed.

Three locations and the colony board

The game comes with several scenarios and only a few of those require a lot of zombie killing. Many involve gathering supplies of one type or another to survive the winter or achieve another goal. Players can discuss what they need to do during each turn and for the game as a whole as they do their individual turns.

The players each choose two characters to play (who typically have special powers, like the nurse who can take extra items when she searches the hospital) and get five random starting items.

Characters and items

The standees (characters and zombies)

The players are also given a secret objective, like having extra food or medicine at the end of the game. The secret objective makes the players work toward something else in addition to the main goal. Thus the game is semi-cooperative. Occasionally, a player will draw a "betrayer" objective that requires the group to lose the main goal for that player to win. The trick with this role is that if the other players guess there is a traitor, they can exile the accused person. If rightly accused, that player is given a new objective and can no longer have characters at the colony, making it difficult to survive.

Secret objective cards

Balancing the need to cooperate for the overall victory condition with an individual, secret goal makes the game tense and interesting. Each round has a special crisis where the group needs to contribute items to a common pool to avoid the crisis. The item cards are placed face down and shuffled when it's time to check if there are enough resources to prevent the crisis. If some of the cards are the wrong type, a traitor is probably in their midst.

The game also features Crossroads cards. On each player's turn, another player draws a card and silently reads the triggering event for the card. The event can be anything from having a specific character or performing a specific action (such as going to the police station or taking a drink of water!). If the event is triggered, the other player reads a short paragraph ("On the way to the police station you run into three kids...") and then the main player has to decide what to do. Typically there are two choices. Both may be good, both may be bad. Occasionally the group has to vote on which option to take. The Crossroads cards make an interesting and flavorful addition to the game.

Crossroad cards

All these elements make an intense, interesting game that we keep coming back to. The zombies keep coming every turn, escalating the tension as everyone works towards the common and their private goals. The private goals and the possibility of a traitor makes it hard for an alpha-gamer to take over the game, sometimes a problem with cooperative games. The game is fun and challenging and well worth playing.

Zombie Apocalypse Appropriateness: While the game does let people try out their survival skills while the zombies are after them, the game might be a little redundant during the actual thing. Plus, it's a big box with lots of pieces, thus a lot to carry around. Unless you do have a colony with lots of other survivors who are scavenging through the local town...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang et al.

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

12 year old girl Hopper has to go to a new school. She wants to fit in but it's a weird place. The main building looks like a haunted house and has the number nine all over it. Another building is padlocked shut. Creepy bird with four eyes perch in the trees. She tries to make friends with three boys but one accidentally gets pudding on her. To make things even, she spits on him. Of course, this is the beginning of their friendship. His name is Eni and he's been going to the school since kindergarten. He's always had the feeling that something is odd about the place. At lunch one of the birds notices Hopper's earrings shaped like the number seven. The bird opens three eyes. Eni thinks he knows what's going on with them. They are expressing numbers in binary code with their eyes (closed, open, open, open). This discovery starts them on the path to unravel the school's mysteries.

The graphic novel is pretty short but a nice introduction to the very basics of binary coding. The book even gives the readers (it seems like it's aimed at 12 year-olds) a chance to do some coding, making it both fun and educational. Sadly, the next book isn't scheduled to come out until August 2016, a very long wait.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Our Garden 2015

We've been thinking about having a garden for quite a while (even before our time in England). This year we finally built one, a small four foot by eight foot plot. We bought some railroad ties and rebar and made our box. Thanks for the great help, Grandpa! The box was filled with a mix of topsoil and garden soil. Then we got to planting. Some stuff we had been growing from seeds in smaller pots on the porch. Transferring was a little more work. We had chard, tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and chives.

Getting advice from Granpa

Carefully planting some pre-grown plants

Checking for bugs

Online advice recommends using cardboard tubes (like from toilet paper or kitchen towels) to grow seeds. The tubes can be put straight in the ground and will rot away, leaving the plant plenty of room to grow. Cardboard will be the plan for next year.

The work wasn't too difficult since we have our own Master Gardener (Aspiring Division) here at home.

Making a last inspection

All done (for now)

Wait, how did my hands get dirty

The garden grew well. We had plenty of small tomatoes which were hand picked and hand eaten by the Master Gardener (Aspiring Division). A few even made it into the house. The herbs contributed to many dishes. A couple of eggplants even graced our table.

From our yard

By the end of the season, we felt a satisfaction unlike any other. We look forward to next year's crops.

The last of the edibles

Monday, November 16, 2015

The First Haircut

The baby has passed his first year. Unfortunately, his hair has been growing too long. Twice he's been identified as a she at stores. It was time for a hair cut. Mommy took him to the local barber where he's seen us get our hair cut, hoping that he'd be more comfortable. Things started out okay since he got to sit in Mommy's lap.

The phone is blocking his view of the instruments on the table

Once things got going, he became more stressed out.

Wait a minute, what's going on here

Here come the scissors

Not so comfortable

He never cried out loud but he was surely an unhappy camper.

What have you done to me!?!?!

At least he looks like a boy again!

The only advice I can pass on to other parents is to steel yourself for your child's discomfort. It's unavoidable but well worth it for the results.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Movie Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) written and directed by Wes Craven

Nancy Thompson and her friend Tina have nightmares where the same man is stalking them. They decide to sleep in the same house and their boyfriends come along. Tina's beau is ready to enjoy a night of "sleeping," while Nancy puts off her boyfriend (played by Johnny Depp in his first role!). Being an '80s horror movie, the girl who sleeps around is the first one to get killed in a very blood-soaked and harrowing scene. Viewers don't see her dream, just her shouting and being tossed around the bedroom and getting cut up and bleeding everywhere. Her boyfriend is the prime suspect since the dream killer is (naturally) nowhere to be found. Can the adults be any help at all or will Nancy have to fight and capture the dream killer alone?

The blurring of lines between dreams and reality is a natural source of terror for people and works very well in a movie. Viewers are left to guess when the characters are dreaming and when they are awake, though occasional dead-giveaways help. The movie relies a bit more on gore, shocks, and jump scenes than it needs to with such a great premise. The few final twists are good because they are unexpected and they make sense.

Freddie Kruger, the dream killer, is well portrayed through minimal exposure. He's mostly a creature of shadows or the guy who's sudden behind you or he slashes his way through some obstacle with his knife-fingered glove. The few details (knife glove, old-fashioned hat, striped sweater) give him an iconic presence even when the viewer can't see him clearly. His growly, threatening voice also works well without being over the top in this film. I wonder if they take these elements too far in any of the sequels, which I haven't seen. It's easy to imagine lesser filmmakers would.

I liked the movie but wasn't wowed by it like I was by John Carpenter's original Halloween.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Euro Quest 2015

Euro Quest is a Euro-game conference sponsored by the Games Club of Maryland. They've held the con for thirteen years and draw 300 to 400 attendees. The convention is a mixture of tournaments and open play opportunities. Some of the organizers go to the Spiel at Essen, the major board game expo held in Germany, and pick up the latest (and hottest) releases. Some of the games are even given away as door prizes. I didn't win any but I had fun playing all sorts of games.

Euro Quest 2015

The first thing I did was go to the UnPub Game Demo room. These games are still under development. Designers playtest their games to get feedback. I tried out Empire, an auction and trading game from Stephenson Brothers Games. Players vie for dominance in a time of colonial expansion. But dominance is a tricky thing to manage. Populations grow but need both goods to keep them happy (thereby amassing support) and industry to keep them busy (thereby amassing more goods). Goods can also be sold for money, which players need to fund their exploration. Exploration brings new people, goods, industry, and wealth, but often in different proportions (and usually not all four at once). If populations are idle or the empire can't pay for its bonds (yeah, there's debt too), revolt cards are earned. The game is tense and quick. Players can either start out with the same resources in the basic game or bid to be one of the great empires of the 16th and 17th century (e.g. Great Britain, France, Prussia). Those empires all have different starting resources and have special powers. Players can also trade whatever they have. At the end of the game, whoever has the most support after subtracting any revolt cards is the winner.

Empire set up

I enjoyed the game even though I didn't do very well in it.

One Euro game I tried was really Euro. By that I mean it was from Italy. Given the content of the game, it will probably never be published in the United States. The game is The Producer: 1940-1944. In it, players are studio heads in 1940s Hollywood. They want to make movies, which means recruiting actors and directors, buying scripts, building the studio lot, and maybe even dealing with the Mafia. The game features actual movies (like Casablanca or The Philadelphia Story) and real actors and directors (like Cary Grant, Bela Lugosi, Orson Welles, Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, etc.) with art and photos that probably are under license to somebody in America. So the game probably couldn't get published here without a lot of legal permissions (which is probably impossible) or making it totally generic (which would take a lot of the fun). The game is a worker-placement style game where the studio execs can hire new people or building new buildings (like extra sets or a make-up department or an orchestra) or try to garner Academy influence through CBS Radio (another copyright violation!). Or, of course, they can make a moving picture once all the resources are in place. After making a picture, they get a certain amount of money based on the audience they can draw. A picture with more stars can get more money. At the end of each round (i.e. each year), the Academy Awards are held and each studio puts forward candidates for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress. Victory points are given for these awards (as well as for building up the studio). At the end of the game, additional points are given for the variety of genres for all the pictures made. The game is a lot of fun just from mixing up directors and actors in pictures. It also has lots of flavorful bits, e.g. one spot to put a worker is the "cocktail party" where the player can hire an available person at half price; another spot is the "casting director" where the player can hire up to three people but at full price. The game does run a bit long.

The Producer: 1940-1944

I tried out Too Many Cinderellas, a light card game where each player tries to convince the prince that one of the people in their hand is the true Cinderella. Each card has a person with a variety of attributes (like hair color, personal likes, and age) and a rumor which says that the true Cinderella doesn't have a certain attribute. Players are dealt four cards and they play two of them as rumors, keeping the other two as possible candidates. Each player can put a "No" token on a rumor when it is played to make it untrue, though each player has only one such token so they can only dispel one rumor. After all the card are played, players check their remaining two to see if they are still possible (i.e. any of the attributes on that card have not been rumored wrong). If more than one player has a viable candidate, the card with the lowest number wins. The game looks interesting, but I just read through the rules while I was waiting to play in a competition.

Many different games had tournaments running. I thought I'd try out Splendor, which is a new game about trading gems to gain victory points. I played with three other people. In a tense game, I managed to purchase a five point value card that was the last card I needed to get one of the nobles who gave me three additional points. That eight point swing brought me to fourteen points, just shy of the fifteen needed to end the game. Other players gathered resources for one more round but I was able to buy a two point card, which gave me the win with sixteen points! The victory meant I had a chance to move on to the semi-finals the next day since I was tied with nine other people for thirteenth place. Only sixteen people compete in the semifinals, so something would have to go my way.

The rankings after the final heat

Me in the middle

The next day, it did work out--not everyone showed up (maybe they were sleeping in or stuck in another competition) so I was a semi-finalist. I played okay but came in fourth (out of four), so I did not advance to the final round. Maybe next year.

I played Castles of Mad King Ludwig with three random strangers. Players are builders in the kingdom of Mad King Ludwig, who wants to have many splendid castles in his kingdom. But he also wants some odd attributes for those castles, represented by some randomly drawn objectives. Players also draw some personal, secret objectives that will give them bonus points at game end. During the game, players take turns building rooms onto their castle from a set. The cost of each room is assigned by the player who is, for that turn, the Master Builder. Each other player gets to buy rooms before the Master Builder, so the MB can't just make a favorite room the cheapest. Once everyone has bought rooms, the Master Builder token moves clockwise and new rooms are drawn to replace the ones built. The game is a little chaotic, though the anarchy looks less random with more experience playing the game. Even if a player doesn't win, there is the satisfaction of making a castle. It has a whimsical charm, if only because it's your own creation.

The Voyages of Marco Polo is a worker placement game where players build trade centers on the route from Venice to Beijing. trade various resources to fulfill contracts, get other resources, and gain victory points. The game was supposed to be under two hours but with a bunch of new people (me included) it was closer to three hours. I enjoyed it (except at the end when one or two players had analysis paralysis for their last few moves) and would play it again. But I am not going to buy it since I already own a couple of games that are similar weight and time length.

The convention had one store selling new games and a used game store where attendees could sell their old, unwanted games. I didn't put anything up for sale, but snagged the expansion for Castellan (so now we can play with four players) and one of the Mystery Rummy series games, Jekyll and Hyde.

Might have been a store selling Castellan

The convention was a lot of fun and I may bring my oldest son next year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Book Review: The Walking Dead TP24: Life and Death by Robert Kirkman et al.

The Walking Dead Trade Paperback 24: Life and Death written by Robert Kirkman, penciled by Charlie Adlard, inked by Stefano Gaudiano

Carl Grimes is chasing after his newfound girlfriend Lydia who is the daughter of The Whisperers' leader. The Whisperers are a group of people who survive by flaying zombies and wearing the skins so the zombies won't bother them. They live a primitive life with no names and no buildings. They are classic hunter-gatherers. Lydia's mother claims they are free but hardly anyone outside the group believes it. Carl has promised not to return without Lydia, so readers get to see a bit of the Whisperers' lifestyle.

Rick Grimes is off visiting other places and picking up shipments, so he doesn't know Carl is gone. Rick has some nice character moments and is looking forward to the fair his community is putting on. The fair is a big hit but Rick chases after Carl as soon as he finds out what has happened. Michonne and Andrea tag along. Will they be able to get Carl away safely?

The biggest problem in this issue is the Whisperers. Sure, they look scary in their hollow-eyed skins and they do horrible things. But their set up is completely unbelievable from either a social or survival standpoint. A small side plot involves Neegan nearly escaping from his jail cell and was easily the best part of a disappointing book.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Planning for the Future

The children are planning for the future, as can be seen by the following stories.

The toddler has been dropping food on the floor for a while. We assumed that was just what toddlers do. Actually, he's been stockpiling supplies for later consumption, as if he was practicing for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. We discovered him harvesting the other day.

"Please don't sweep the floor, daddy!"

He took this storage plan to a new and unexpected level at breakfast when he played at putting the lid back on the gallon milk container. He grabbed some Cheerios from the table and put them into the three-quarters full milk jug. We couldn't figure out how to get them out, so we left them there. When he woke up from his morning nap, I poured him a bottle of milk from the gallon container. Amazingly, the floating Cheerios poured right into his bottle. Then I had the problem of how to get them out of his bottle without throwing away the milk. Then it hit me. I kept filling the bottle until the floating cereal was right by the top of the bottle. A quick scoop with a spoon and all was well with the world. Next time (hopefully there won't be one) I will pour the gallon of milk into another, wide-mouthed container until the foreign objects come out. I will then remove the objects and pour the milk back in.

My daughter hit a new milestone by losing her first tooth at age six. She was very excited to get money from the tooth fairy. She is old enough that she asked if I was the tooth fairy. When I demurred, she asked if mommy was the tooth fairy. I said mommy was definitely not since she already had a job.

"Look, cold hard cash!"

She put the tooth in an envelope since it was so small. The next morning she found some money under her pillow. The money has gone into a savings account, which was her own idea! So she'll have money for the future as long as the future is not the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

So either way, my kids have it covered.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Review: Only the Lover Sings by Josef Pieper

Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation by Josef Pieper

This slim volume of essays considers art from the perspective of the artist and the consumer of art. Pieper covers some of the same ground from his Leisure the Basis of Culture, where he distinguishes between work, which is always for some other purpose (e.g. to feed your family or to help your community), and leisure, which is an end in itself. Art is a quintessential leisure activity, or at least it should be. The artist contemplates the world and reflects that back in the works he or she produces. Thus the art is not just a copy of the real world but an interpretive understanding. The artist needs to see the world in an affirmative way in order to have great art. Perceiving the world negatively results in, at best, parody.

For consumers of art, the same is true. To appreciate the value and meaning of a work of art, the consumer needs to see the world in more than just a passing glance. Pieper talks about a trans-Atlantic voyage where he told other passengers about sea creatures only visible in the wake of the boat at night. The passengers reported the next day that they saw nothing the night before. They had only looked for a few minutes, not enough time for their eyes to adapt to let them see. Leisure, in a seeming paradox, requires some effort. The effort is well rewarded.

The book is very short (76 pages) but very full of wisdom and is well worth reading and re-reading slowly.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Review: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn is an original fantasy epic where certain people (called Allomancers) have the ability to ingest and then burn certain metals to give them superhuman abilities. Most people who have the power can only burn one sort of metal and gain one sort of power. Tin enhances the senses, brass soothes emotions, for example. But the rare few can burn all the metals and use all the powers. These people are known as Mistborn. They have so much power that they are not afraid to go out at night, when the mists come. Rumors say that Mist Wraiths inhabit the fog that envelops the world every night. Daytime is little better, with a constant fall of ash. Legends speak of a time when there was a yellow sun and green plants, but a darkness has covered the land.

For a thousand years, the immortal emperor known as the Lord Ruler has had authority over the world. He rules over the nobles, powerful families who control production and trade. Under the nobles are the Skaa, the average workers who slave at plantations, mines, and factories to produce what everyone needs to survive and the nobles need to thrive. The metal burners, or Allomancers, are all from noble blood and uprisings by the Skaa have always failed. Of course, sometimes the nobles consort with Skaa women but they are supposed to kill them before any offspring can appear. They don't always succeed, and thus we have Vin. She's a street thief who begins the story working with her brother and a gang of thieves. Their gang is attacked and she manages to escape (she's always had an uncanny sort of luck, as if she could soothe the emotions of others). She winds up with a new gang with more grandiose plans--they are going to mount a coup against the Lord Ruler and the nobility. This gang is full of various Skaa Allomancers, including their leader Kelsier--a charming Mistborn who wants to stick it to the nobility. Vin discovers her abilities (she's a Mistborn too) and begins training for the daring mission to uncover the secrets of the Lord Ruler and end his tyranny.

The book is the beginning of a series and is a well-detailed introduction to this world. In addition to crafting a fascinating and detailed metal-burning magical system, Sanderson introduces an interesting social and economic system. The long history of the world is also hinted at. The characters are all distinct and likable. The story moves at a brisk pace, with plenty of action (some metals let people push and pull on metal objects, enabling the people to toss items around or fly themselves around when the metal is firmly anchored). The book has a definite ending (sometimes these stories just go on and on with no satisfactory intermediate resolutions) and leaves open interesting possibilities for the future. I'm looking forward to the next volume!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Review: Avatar The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part One by Gene Luen Yang et al.

Avatar The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow Part One written by Gene Luen Yang, art and covers by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Fire Lord Zuko sails back to the Fire Nation with his long-lost mother. As he's arriving, Ukano, the leader of the New Ozai Society, plots to assassinate Zuko and return Zuko's imprisoned father to the throne. Ukano is motivated by a visit from the Kemurikage, a supposedly mythical band of spirits who promise to inflict great pain on him if he does not depose Zuko. Ukano plans a daring attack on the royal procession. Ukano's daughter Mai is a Kyoshi Warrior (the elite troops of the Fire Nation). She has her own plans--to thwart her father's secret group. With Aang and friends off on other business, can Zuko and his allies survive?

This story is another solid start to an on-going story set in the world of Avatar. The characters are interesting, the political intrigue is fascinating, and the humor still comes through. I can't wait for the next issue in December!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Trinity War Finale!

We played in the final Organized Play event for the Trinity War storyline at our local game store. It was an exciting time, not just as the last of the event, but also they had ten people playing and it was the tenth anniversary for the store, so it was a long weekend of celebrating for them.

Playing the in rainbow draft, my son and I had a middling performance. This final DC Comics event used the new War of Light Dicemasters set, which is full of Green Lanterns, Yellow Lanterns, Red Lanterns, Star Sapphires, et al. The set also has a number of Teen Titans, though they make a small minority of the set. The only super-rare card I drew was Teen Titan Starfire, who deals one damage to the opposing player for each other active Teen Titan (on either your team or the other team).  I put her on my team hoping others would field Teen Titans, but nobody did. Also, she is a bolt character, which should have helped my Fatality character who would deal three damage to the opposing player if at least three bolts were rolled, but I only used that ability once in the three games I played, so that was a bit of a bust. At least Starfire is a super-rare. I didn't win any games in this event; my son only one. We both received the participation prize, the action card The Outsider.

On the other hand, for the overall storyline, my son came in first place (the last event, which he won, had triple points so he scored a lot there). I came in second, so we both received the special event card and die Atomica. So we have a spare to trade next time!

Spoils of the day (we actually got two of The Outsider)

We had fun, even though it was a long day. I hope the store hosts more events, hopefully featuring the Marvel sets!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Larriland Farm, Maryland, 2015

We enjoyed our visit to Larriland Farm last year so much that we went again this year with a smaller contingent. The weather was a bit cold and the toddler is still on an inconvenient nap schedule, so my daughter and I went by ourselves. We met some friends there and had a good time.

Larriland Farms entrance

The great pumpkin!

Our first activity was visiting the Boo Barn, a haunted house that's not too scary for any age.

Boo Barn entrance

Across from the Boo Barn was the concessions stand. I bought some hot apple cider for my daughter and a serving of apple fritters to share. She didn't particularly care for the fritters, which meant more deep-fried goodness for me!

Enjoying some cider

Making the fritters

They were very tasty!

We went on the hay ride again which had some stuff I didn't remember from last year. Either they are new or I have a poor memory!

Ready to ride

The tractor

Piling on hay to stay warm

Kristoff from Frozen

Characters from Mario Kart/World/Franchise

Donkey from Shrek (which I do remember from last year)

Abraham Lincoln

The tire was so big!

We saw the llamas and goats. We fed the llamas, which was fun, and stared at the goats, which was terrifying.

Llamas for feeding

Getting a mouthful

What a cute face!

Goat on the walkways

Stop staring at me!!

What a menacing pose!

We saw a performer but as we walked up, she announced she was taking a break to warm up her hands. So there's no video and I don't know her name. Maybe if we come back next year we'll get to hear her.

Be right back!

We bought a pumpkin and some produce at the farm store so we'd have something to bring home for everyone else to enjoy.

Fully stocked farm store

We had to drive for the apple picking. Fuji apples, which happen to be our favorite type, were ripest and readiest. We filled a bag and headed home with some extra produce.

She is not the bag lady, no matter what the sign says

Walking into the orchard

Getting some good ones

Apples ready for picking and eating

A tough tree

Classic apple