Friday, June 30, 2006

Quote of the Day

"You cannot spread democracy through the barrel of a gun."
- Senior White House Correspondant Helen Thomas, on The Daily Show.

Hardly a new sentiment, but one that certainly bears repeating. I particularly like the not-so-subtle suggestion that the violent method of spreading democracy is no different than Chairman Mao forcing change through the barrel of a gun (just in case you're an absolute dullard and missed the reference).

Movie: An Inconvenient Truth

This must be a good time to get caught up on things I've been meaning to do. I held off watching An Inconvenient Truth until Seth got back from Philly, then he saw it when I couldn't, and then I held off seeing it again. After seeing Al Gore on The Daily Show, I finally decided "what the fuck" and saw it.

Movie-wise, I thought about 80% of it was great. That 80% included the parts from Gore's talk on climate change, and the end with a list of things I can do to help. The other 20% were shots of Gore walking around airports, or news clips from the 2000 election, with voiceovers. I understand why that stuff was put in the movie - to help break things up a little, and to offer some personal perspective on why Gore feels so strongly about the environment - but those scenes bordered on tedium at some points.

Overall I thought it was fantastic, and certainly serves as a wakeup call - we're standing at a precipace from which there may soon be no escape, and the evidence in favor of human influence being the key contributing factor to the climate crisis is accepted by the scientific community (and, despite what you might read from the right side of the stadium, there isn't a single peer-reviewed scientific article that disputes that human influences are responsible for the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere).

After the movie, I was thinking a lot about some of the arguments people have taken against environmental action. The most common, of course, is that it's just too expensive. Why should we force American automobile manufacturers to produce cars that get more than 25 miles to the gallon (the current standard?) That's just too expensive! Never mind that evil, communist, rootin-tootin-pollutin China requires 35 miles to the gallon, meaning that America's cars can't be sold there - too expensive. And yet, GM is losing so much money that, yet again, they're laying off (pardon, buying out in UAW terms) 35,000 workers. SUVs are sitting on car lots, unsold. It's not environmental concern that has driven people away from the American cars that are so fuel-inefficient - it's high gas prices. But the important thing is that it's an economic factor that's starting to straighten people out. Environmentalism will only work if the economic factors are in place on a larger scale - if there's truly a legitimate, money-saving reason to do these kinds of things in the long term. And I think people are slowly starting to realize there is. Whether it's Energy Star appliances or light bulbs that use less power, or putting solar panels on your roof so you can get credit for feeding power back into the grid, or buying a Honda Civic because you're too tired of plunking down $30 to fill up your Neon every four days, it really does makes sense to be responsible, and I think - I hope - more and more people are beginning to realize it.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Book: Life of Pi by Yann Martell

I first saw this book back in my senior year of college, when I was on a big pi (the number) kick, after seeing Pi (the movie). I always meant to pick it up, but hardcovers were more than I could afford and I kind of forgot about it by the time it came to paperback. Then I found it for a quarter at a garage sale a few months ago. Score!

Life of Pi actually has very little to do with pi, the number. It has everything to do with Pi Patel, an Indian (from India) who spends the first third of the book in a remarkable search for religious truth. Much to the chagrin of his family, he becomes a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim at the same time. In his mind, the religions marry seamlessly, although it's clear they do not in the eyes of those around him, including his religious teachers.

The second two-thirds involve a shipwreck and a tiger. Pi's family owns a zoo, and decides to immigrate to Canada. On the way, their ship sinks and Pi is the only survivor, along with a hyena, a wounded zebra, and orangutan, and a tiger. Then, it's Pi and the tiger, on a 26-foot lifeboat.

In the introduction, the later-life Pi character (who is dictating the story many years after the fact) claims his tale would "make you believe in God." I'm not sure if that's true, but after I finished the book I felt like I do when looking at all wonderful human accomplishments intended to pay homage to an incite belief in an almighty - for example, the overwhelming awe I felt when walking into Canturbury Cathedral, or the humbling might of Durham Cathedral. I certainly liked the novel, and I can't decide if the ending (which I will not spoil) really was a happy one or not. The funny thing is, it reinforces more of my Buddhist worldview than it does any aspect of Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam, but I suppose the author would be satisfied with that result.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton

Via Bobby, the Constitution of the USA and the Constitution of the Confederacy side-by-side, with notes.

Any bullshit you've been fed about the Civil War being some noble libertarian struggle for states' rights should be handily dismissed just by comparing the two documents, and noting which one gave states more rights.

What's in a Name?

I have given quite a bit of thought to the meaning of national identity here in the United States, specifically to those of us with immigrant backgrounds (I suppose that would be all your non-full-blooded-Indians out there.) My family came to the US around the turn of the 20th century, mostly people from Eastern Europe with a little Lebanese thrown in for good measure, all trying to find a better life through hard work and opportunity. And since I'm not slaving away in a factory somewhere, or working my fingers to the bone on some farm in Poland, I'd say they succeeded not only for themselves but for their families and descendants.

But how do I identify myself? I am an American. I was born here. My parents were born here. My grandparents were all born here. I feel no connection to Europe whatsoever - even when I lived in London, I didn't visit any of the places from which my family emmigrated. But geneaology is a hobby in my family, and although I don't get into it like my mother and grandfather, I certainly find it fascinating. When I was in New York, I went to Ellis Island and found my ancestor's names on the wall o' immigrants there - that is the familial connection I feel, the one that drove them from Poland to the US to look for something better.

It's interesting because during our family reunions, especially on the Polish side, we do Polishy kinds of things - eat Kielbasa, wear the Polish eagle on the family reunion shirts, and so on. My grandfather is in the Polish club, and he went back and learned Polish (again) so he could talk to our Polish relatives (and, I suspect, for his own enjoyment.) Since his parents came from Poland, they spoke Polish in the home, so learning it was never a problem. He's got the Polish flag in his house, and boy howdy don't you dare say anything negative about Poland in his presence.

But here's the rub: I don't really see myself in that context. Maybe it's because I'm more of a mutt when it comes to my ancestor's nationalities than he is (German, Hungarian, Lebanese, etc.) but I've always identified myself as an American first and foremost. I've struck up a friendship with some gamers in Poland, and they thought it was kind of funny that I mentioned I was "part Polish" to them, because in their eyes, I'm an American and that's it. And in my mind, that's how I feel too.

I haven't always felt that way, though. In college, I struggled with the national identity thing, especially in my time abroad when Americans were not terribly well thought of in Europe thanks to our involvement in Kosovo (and frankly, I saw plenty of Americans doing dumbassed shit anyway.) But it's something I've been stumbling towards for a while, and yesterday I think I finally cemented how I feel about it.

My Polish gaming pal pointed me towards the Polish Wikipedia, which has an article about the Fallout PnP RPG I wrote back in college (which is apparently huge in Poland.) The article cites me as an author, but it doesn't use the Polish spelling my last name - which would be Micał - rather, it uses the Polish version of the Americanized spelling and pronunciation, Micala. My first impulse was to edit the article to reflect the Polish spelling of my name, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that would be dishonest. Mical is the last name some Ellis Island official gave my family when they were huddled masses yearning to be free, and it's been our last name ever since. And although I hadn't thought about it in quite some time, that is certainly how I see myself - the third generation product of immigrants, American through and through.

Movie: Rounders

So even though I've been playing poker as a hobby for more than a year, I hadn't watch the king of all poker movies, Rounders, until tonight. I can certainly see why it's so popular among the crowd I hang out with, although the premise that poker is 99% about reading people is, well, misleading to say the least.

Of course, watching a movie that's about not knowing when to walk away makes one think about their own playing style. If there's one thing I need to work on, it's making those kinds of calls: walking away when you know that what you have might be good, but it isn't fucking great. If I can master that, the old game might improve a tad.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Weekend Update, and Work

I spent most of yesterday doing yardwork and hanging out with the boys. Crabby and I removed six rhodie stumps from the front yard, completing the landscape razing that will eventually (in theory) result in an awesome new landscaping design featuring the climbing roses that grow like mad around here. Speaking of roses, our backyard has turned into a veritable Queen's Rose Garden - if we want a dozen to brighten up the house, we just have to open the back door and clip some off, which still leaves plenty for later. It's pretty cool to see the results of your labor, I must say.

Hanging out meant going to REI for a sale (all the stuff I wanted wasn't on sale) and Archie McPhees to help Seth on a scavenger hunt. And generally just rolling and having fun. I grabbed my comics, which aren't inspiring me at all these days (exception: Fantastic Four) and the next expansion to Munchkin. Oddly enough, I like Munchkin more than I like Chez Geek, but my gaming group is addicted to Chez Geek and doesn't like Munchkin. Here's a secret: they're basically the same game, just with a different metaphor. Oh well.

So work. Right. It looks like I've found myself another freelancing writing contract for an RPG. This one will be probably the highest-paying one yet (OK, not saying much since I've only had one other paying contract), but it's a project very near and dear to my heart. And there's things like CDAs involved, so I'm not sure how much I can spill yet. It's d20 Modern too, and I'll probably have to inflict a minor playtest on some people. It means I probably won't be dinking around with my novel as much as I want, but I've blocked aside some time for that today to see what I can produce.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Monkey Island: The Play

Just in case you ever wondered what a play based on the awesome adventure game Monkey Island might look like if performed by high school students, wonder no more. It's long, and it's acted by high school students, but at least it's not a ship crewed entirely by monkeys.

I admit that I watched the first part and the last part, and it's actually pretty well done. Now they need to move it to Broadway and make Monkey Island: The Musical!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Good News, Everybody!

Sweet God in Heaven, can it be true? Is Futurama really coming back?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Real Life Superhero

Thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Boise got its very own superhero for a day.

Quote of the Day

Seth shot me this one:

    Unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public; ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the public.

    - Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1964

Super RPG

One of my former Tulsa gaming buddies is currently selling his homebrew RPG system online, Hi/Lo Heroes. Why don't you order your copy today?

Friday, June 16, 2006

My Feet Are Cold

Ladies and Gentlemen, Hell hath frozen over.

Bush has done two things in the same day that I agree with.

First, he wants to close Gitmo:

    "I'd like to close Guantanamo... No question, Guantanamo sends, you know, a signal to some of our friends -- provides an excuse, for example, to say, 'The United States is not upholding the values that they're trying encourage other countries to adhere to'," Bush said.
Well holy fucking shit, wonders never cease. And then he goes and creates a colossal national monument to protect marine life:
    "It's the single-largest act of ocean conservation in history. It's a large milestone," Lautenbacher said. "It is a place to maintain biodiversity and to maintain basically the nurseries of the Pacific. It spawns a lot of the life that permeates the middle of the Pacific Ocean."
Of course that doesn't exactly make up for six years of bending America over a barrel, eroding our constitutional rights and destroying relations with other countries in a manner that will take a generation to undo. But at least it goes to show that you can still find common ground - somewhere.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Poker Post

Poker terminology can range from the obvious (calling a pair of Queens "ladies") to the punny (calling a Jack-Four a "spare tire," as in "what's a jack for?") One of the most interesting phrases is the term "nuts" or "nut X," where X is the kind of hand (example: nut flush). I wondered where this term originated. Wikipedia had the answer:

    The phrase originates from the historical poker games in the colonial west of America. If one bet to the sum of everything he possessed, he would place the "nuts" of his wagon wheels on the table. Most likely, this was to ensure that, should the wagerer lose the hand, he would be unable to flee and would have to make good on the bet. Obviously, to make such a bet one would need to be sure that he has the best possible hand.
Interesting indeed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Beware Brando!

Here's a funny anecdote.

Before I grabbed my healthy lunch salad, I ran by the Rite-Aid around the corner from my office for a couple of things. I work right around Westlake Center, a major bus stop and a large open area with fountains where homeless folk like to congregate, as there are benches and shoppers aplenty. So it's not unusual to see homeless folk in stores around here either.

As I'm checking out, a homeless guy (ok, I'm generalizing, but he had the homeless guy smell) comes up to the cash register with three of those pine-tree shaped air fresheners like you hang from the rearview mirror of a '72 Plymouth. I'm signing the credit card receipt, and the guy says "I need to pay for these seperately."

The clerk says: "three seperate transactions?" She looks amused.

The guys thinks about it for a few seconds and says: "no, just make it two."

I'm finished, so I hand the receipt back to the clerk who then hands me my copy and I'm ready to be on my way. The guy then says: "hey!"

I stop and turn around.

He points at me and says: "When Marlon Brando comes, he's going to kick your ass!"

I glance at the clerk, who's kind of trying not to laugh. I'm trying not to laugh either. So I said, "OK," and turned around and walked out.

I'm going to remember that line for a long time.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Movie: The Skeleton Key

Lots of movie posts today. Had these in the hopper for a while.

I'm going to save us a little time.

Kate Hudson is a hospice nurse looking for something new. She answers a wanted ad for an on-site nurse out in the bayous, in an atmospheric old planatation house (same one from Dead Birds, I think). She shows up, creepy shit happens, hilarity ensues.

Skeleton Key isn't a blatant rip-off of Let's Scare Jessica to Death, but it comes close at times. The only scares here are from very obvious "jump" moments.

Atmosphere was great, music pretty good, ending was surprisingly interesting. Rest of the movie was derivative and not scary at all, unfortunately.

Do with that what you will.

Movie: Kingdom of Heaven Director's Cut

When I watched Kindgom of Heaven the first time, I thought the movie was a great concept but poorly edited and missing great chunks of the film. Apparently I was right, since Ridley Scott released a "Director's Cut" that's almost a full hour longer than the original. Most director's cuts add some violence in, or a deleted scene or two. This is a whole different movie, and dear God it is great. This is my favorite Ridley Scott movie, and this is probably one of the best films I've seen in the last two years.

The movie follows Balien, a blacksmith who journeys to Kingdom of Jerusalem between the first and second crusade. There he befriends the king and eventually is put in charge of defense of the city against Saladin's army.

The movie fills in the gaps from the previous version: Balien's skill at engineering and knowledge of warfare, the dispute between himself and the priest, his father's dispute with the local lord, the princess' relationships (she has a son, and goes from minor supporting character to one of the most important characters in the film), and more.

The movie is intended as a metaphor for current middle eastern conflicts, but manages to avoid the "well, these people have been fighting for forever, so fuck 'em" attitude you hear. It clearly highlights that religious fanaticism on all sides is in no small part responsible for conflict, and Balien's attitude - it is a kingdom of conscience, or nothing - echoes this, but in a "golden mean" sort of way.

Aside from the historical inaccuracies in character (and the fact that people wear chainmail all the time, even on boats!), the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven really is amazing. Much better than Gladiator in my opinion. Worth checking out.

SIFF 2006: When Fish Fall In Love

When Fish Fall In Love was the last film of the festival for me this year, and the second Iranian movie. I liked this one much better than Nightly Song of the Travellers. First, it had a plot. Second, it was a great human story of hope and the decisions we make affecting the outcome of our lives, and not necessarily in a good way.

The movie is obstensibly about Aziz, an architect who comes back to his hometown to find the house he still technically inhabited by four independent women who run a restaurant there. One of them happens to be his former flame, who is the de facto ringleader of the bunch.

What makes this movie remarkable is that the women are very independent, especially given Iranian society and its attitudes towards women. They may wear birqas, but they smoke cigarettes and have a very pragmatic approach, and the ringleader don't take no guff either.

It shapes up like a traditional romantic comedy, but the ending is anything but. There are just as many unresolved plotlines at the conclusion as there are at the beginning, and although it bothered me a little (I want to know what happened!) upon further reflection it actually worked very well.

The other great thing was the food - the food itself was almost another character, and it worked excpetionally well for a movie that took place largely at two different restaurants.

Anyway, this was easily my favorite film of the festival this year.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

What I've Been Up To

Aside from work, that is? There's been SIFF, and hanging out with my buddies. For various reasons, my friends' lives are in a state is disarray, while mine seems to be doing well for now, so I've been trying to be the shoulder for people who need it.

Also, I got a brand-new cellphone the other day, thanks to Liz's account at her job. I can check my email and read the Internet (RSS feeds seem to translate best to the phone) from pretty much anywhere. That, and a nice trip to Half Price Books last night that netted me some cool roleplaying stuff, including a nice copy of Champions for ten bucks.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Turning the Other Cheek

This has been making the rounds online, but it's worth reading: an interview with the father Nick Berg, the person decapitated by al-Zarqawi on camera. The theme: revenge does nothing but breed more revenge.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

SIFF 2006: The Nightly Song of the Travelers

Based on how much I liked The Lizard at SIFF 2005, I decided to spend two of my six passes on Iranian films this year. The first was The Nightly Song of the Travelers. The director came out and introduced the film, telling us that it "didn't really have a plot."

Uh oh.

Nightly Song was very dream-like, in that it had incredibly rich imagery, and interesting emphasis on sound, and - didn't really have a plot. The main character was just released from a prison and is looking for his hometown, which seems to have disappeared from all official records and memories. He has a young boy in tow, for reasons never explained, who serves the purpose of asking the questions the audience is asking as the movie progresses.

I'm not really sure I enjoyed watching Nightly Song, but it was certainly interesting.

I am SIFF-free until the coming weekend. Seattle Puppetteers: Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth opened last weekend, and it's showing at the Pacific Place downtown and at the Guild in Wallingford. What are you waiting for - go see it!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

SIFF 2006: Frostbite

Someone is still going to have to do right by the Thirty Days of Night concept.

Frostbite was my horror movie pick for SIFF 2006 - Sweden's first vampire movie. It was a nice approach to the genre, fairly fresh without being over the top, humorous without descending into self-parody, and gory without going for the splatter effect. Imagine Ginger Snaps with subtitles.

Young Saga and her mother move to a town in the far north of Sweden, where it's nighttime for an entire month. In this town resides a vampire. People get bitten. Hilarity ensues.

The disappointing part is that it could have been set anywhere at any time - because the whole "it's night for a month!" aspect only came up at the very end, and wasn't integral to the plot whatsoever. This means that the greatest concept in the last thirty years of vampire fiction remains unsatisfactorily explored (I think I made that word up.) Thirty Day didn't deliver, and Frostbite, while satisfying, didn't really explore it either.

Still, it's coming to American theaters later this year, and it's worth a look.

Monday, June 05, 2006

What a Gay Marriage Ban Won't Solve

I'm not a huge fan of Harry Reid, but this speech he delivered today on the floor of the Senate certainly made me respect him more. In this speech, he enumerates the myriad problems that a Gay Marriage Ban won't solve.

I also find it amusing and hypocritical that the same bunch who want to overturn Roe v. Wade and return the issue of reproductive rights to the states in the name of saving millions of lives want to amend the Consitution to prevent two guys or two girls from sharing health care and being able to check the "married, filing jointly" box on their taxes.

The federal government should step in to prevent two guys from marriage, but it should be up to the states when the lives of unborn children are at risk?

Does that seem a little bipolar to anyone else?

Two Sizes

I haven't been religious about weighing myself during this summer's weight-loss cycle, but last time I did (probably three weeks ago) I was the same as my lowest at the end of last summer.

Jon's been giving me shit for a long time that I've needed new pants. And he's right. My old pants were beyond stylishly baggy, into "you look like a hobo" land.

Today I got new pants. They are two sizes smaller in the waist and fit great.

Two more sizes, and I'll be where I want to be.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

SIFF 2006: The King

SIFF is in full swing; last week, we did a late Thursday movie, and then a late Friday movie last night. Then I've got one this evening (unfortunately it conflicts with an Alliterates outing), and Seekrit Festival tomorrow. Wow!

Thursday night was The King, a story about a soldier just discharged from the army who goes to seek his father, who conceived him out of wedlock. Daddy is a Christian preacher in Texas, and he and his family aren't terribly happy that the main character shows up.

Now the newspaper guide (which is all you have to work from when choosing movies) mentions The King is a movie about exploring religion, the relationship with good, and morality. OK, sounds like a setup for an interesting story - conflict of morality makes for a good indie intellectual movie, right?

Well, here's what we got: incest, rape, and murder. So it was a little different than the ads might have suggested. OK, I can deal with that. But was it any good?

It was decent. Pretty good. Good? Great? No.

The movie borrowed from a lot of indie film "noir" conventions, but rather than doing it well (see Brick), it just came out feeling un-original. There were shots stolen almost directly from Blue Velvet, and I'm reasonably certain a few from 21 Grams as well. It took without giving, and committed a cardinal movie sin by (spoiler alert) killing the most interesting character first.

In its defense, The King treated the subject matter of conservative Christians in Texas with far more respect than could be expected from an indie film, and I appreciated that aspect of it. Early in the film there is a discussion about Intelligent Design that the Seattle-based audience snickered at, and even cheered when a decision was made not to teach ID alongside evolution. I sat there thinking a) they don't seem to understand that this isn't made so you could feel superior to these people, it's made so you might be able to understand them better, and b) you're treating this is a joke when there are people - a lot of people - who believe this. In fact, I was more annoyed at the disrespect of the audience than I was with any disrespect from the film itself, which is unusual. Maybe I'm mellowing out more than I thought, or maybe my Okie perspective helps me see things in a different light than those who might not have stepped foot out the blue parts of the Northwest.

It was too bad that the film wasn't better, because with a little more originality it really could have kicked ass.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Framing The Iraq War in Protests

Every day on our commute into Seattle, we pass under a pedestrian bridge. On Wednesdays, this bridge is occupied by people peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to share opinions about the Iraq war. There are peace activists (whose signs read NO IRAQ WAR, IMPEACH BUSH AND CHENEY, and so forth) and - well, I wouldn't call them war supporters per se - troop supporters whose signs read SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, GOD BLESS AMERICA, etc. There used to be a fairly regular group of them; as we'd crawl underneath on our way into work, we'd see them talking to each other (always the same people with the same signs; I would imagine they got to know each other fairly well), sipping coffee (this is Seattle), and even laughing together.

For a while, the troop supporters were equal in number to or greater than the peace activists. Not terribly surprising; there are a lot of military bases in the immediate area, and lots of military families live here. They would fly American and Iraqi flags. The funny thing was, they'd always stand on opposite sides of the bridge; the troop supporters on the right, the peace activists on the left (facing south). One person even made a sign mocking (kinda) this strange configuration, with an arrow pointing to the right that read RIGHT SIDE and an arrow pointing to the left that read WRONG SIDE.

When the winter rains started, their numbers started to dwindle. There was always a hardcore group of four or so on each side that made the trip out in ponchos and sweaters, though. But after the new year, something very interesting happened:

The troop supporters stopped coming.

The peace activists have dwindled to a final two holdouts, one with the IMPEACH sign, the other with the NO IRAQ WAR sign, but the troop supporters haven't been around in a couple of months.

I kept meaning to remark on this development, but Wednesdays never seemed to work out timewise. It also got stranger and stranger the more time has passed.

I doubt the troop supporters left because, well, they no longer support the troops. I suspect they may have discovered what those of us who have opposed the war all along knew or suspected - that supporting the troops meant not risking or wasting their lives for lies about weapons of mass destruction, or multi-billion dollar Haliburton contracts. That the war has been bungled from the beginning. That their sons and daughters were put in harm's way because the public was misled, and has been continually misled since.

Incidentally, I've been meaning to write a piece about progress in Iraq and the possibility of democracy taking root there. I'll do that tomorrow if I get a chance. Perhaps it will be more optimistic than this.