Sunday, February 15, 2015

"Kingsman" review: like the Piranha Bros., cheery but violent

In the Monty Python sketch, "The Piranha Brothers," the eponymous siblings are described as, "A cheery lot. Cheery... but violent." I can't think of a better description of the overall tone of "The Kingsman" than that.

For a movie whose action starts relatively slowly, there ends up being a lot of cheery violence. I mean... a lot a lot. If you are disturbed by the gratuitous deaths of hundreds of bystanders and generally innocent (or at least non-main-villainous) crowds of fellow humans... think twice. If, however, you can take your bloodbaths with a handful of salt, you'll find yourself doing that thing where you laugh and go, "Awww... Garrrg... Blaaahhhh..." at the same time. A kind of laugh-groan-yuck noise where you laugh because it's well done and, frankly, pretty funny but groan because, well... lots of death. And then you feel bad because you're laughing at people getting their blanks blanked off or blanked up or blanked in... and then you feel bad for feeling bad because, really... did you go to this movie thinking it would be a serious treatment of... er... anything.

Warning... mild spoilers coming about some character attributes, but nothing that will spoil the plot. I promise. Because if you don't know the plot, you've never seen a tongue-in-cheek spy movie.

Colin is great. Love seeing him playing, essentially, a classier version of Bond. The ass kickings he hands (foots?) out are the main joy of the film. The main character hunk (don't know him, don't care) did a fine job of jogging through almost every "lower class kid surprises his 'betters' and makes good" trope in the book. Samuel L. Jackson (with an inexplicable lisp) is... just odd. Don't understand the casting, didn't understand his character's motivation (not surprising: it was given 11 seconds), don't understand the reasoning behind his Grand Evil Scheme. He serves his purpose only barely, which is a shame, as I generally love SLJ. His henchman (henchwoman?), Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella has prosthetics similar to the "Flex-Foot Cheetah" legs but, of course, with blades in them. And while that makes for a neat henchwoman gimmick, it could have been much more interestingly used. Yes, there are a couple good fights where she bounced around on them, weaving a ballet of death. But it seemed like whomever was in charge of Colin's fights got the good writers/choreographers, and she got the 2nd stringers. Similarly, the spy gizmos were somewhat disappointing and all, essentially, warmed-over Bondage items.

The tone is, really, what saves this movie from being average. It doesn't take itself seriously, doesn't expect you to, and -- having given itself (and us) that kind permission -- goes off in its chosen direction with willful abandon. The couple major surprises that are popped on us (that's a pun; come back after you've seen the picture) are fun and inventive and the filming is joyously over-the-top music-video-meets-sam-peckinpah. While there is not a lot of meat on this bone, there is also no fat. Which means... I guess... It's just a bone. Which, as dogs will tell you, makes a fine toy.

I give it a B+ and encourage anyone who can enjoy casual, almost glib and merry buckets of colorful violence to check it out. As said of Douglas Piranha, "When he was young, he was keen on boxing. But when he learned to walk, he took up putting a boot in the groin."

If that sentence makes you smile at all, you'll like "The Kingsman."

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Risk for two: mad mods for classic board game

A Facebook discussion about the various versions of Risk (LOTR, Star Wars, etc.) and different rulesets about reinforcements reminded me of the insanely modded version of the game I played when I was a kid with my friend, Derek. We did a lot of camping in those days, even in the cold months at either end of the season, and that often meant a few hours inside a camper or tent if it was particularly nasty out. Derek was a couple years older than me and introduced me to both Risk itself, and to the idea that you can play whatever rules you want, as long as everyone agrees ahead of time. I was around 12 or 13, and my brother wasn't quite old enough to enjoy more complex games yet, so Derek and I ended up modding the hell out of Risk, since playing standard rules with two players is both boring and infuriating.

Any of the following rules/mods can be taken alone, or lumped together. Or, of course, altered until unrecognizable from the original.

1. City States

Probably the most important for making two-player play a bit less unbalanced. After picking your colors, take a third color (we always used black) and assign at least one random territory in each continent as an independent city state. We generally put one each in Australia and S. America, two in N. America, Africa and Europe and three in Asia. Each city state gets 10 units. They are not reinforced unless attacked; after any attack on a city state that doesn't wipe it out, add one unit of partisans. After a player attacks a city state for the first time, it will then get a one die standard attack roll against all adjacent territories in which you have units. If that roll wipes out the last player unit, the territory becomes annexed to the city state with 5 units.

The city state rules make it hard to both attack the human opponent, defend against him/her and try to wipe out a whole continent. When combined with the alternate reinforcement rules below, it makes the game take a LOT LONGER, but allows for some very different strategic planning. Including deliberate pestering of city states near your opponents main areas and deliberately losing to them in order to create new annexes. Heh.

2. Alternate Reinforcements

We dumped the regular reinforcement rules even in 3+ person play. Way too much swinging back-and-forth with huge swings based on the cards. Three main changes:
  • Regular reinforcements = territories owned divided by two when it's your turn and divided by three when it's anybody else's. Yes, you get reinforcements when it's not your turn. Attacker deploys reinforcements first. Again, this makes for a longer and more defensive game.
  • Continents' value adjusted up by +3 for each. This has the effect of making the smaller continents more valuable relatively. 
  • Cards reinforcements: turn over a random card each turn. That territory gets +3 reinforcements. If playing with City States, they don't get them. We basically hated how important random card matching and hording became in later game stages.

3. Navies

This is a weird one, but we had fun with it. At the beginning of the game, take a 2nd color for your navies. You use the big (x10) pieces as carrier groups and get 3 of them. You use the little ones as destroyers and get 10. They can start on the coast of any territory you have. You can move them once per turn to the coast of an adjacent territory. Carrier groups can transport up to 10 troops each and  can shell adjacent territories based on two-times the number of troops carried. Carrier groups defend, however, as only one unit, plus any destroyers in the same "sea territory." Carrier groups cannot attack other sea units. So while they are powerful, they are vulnerable. You can't have more than 3 carrier groups and 10 destroyers (we defended this idea based on fuel availability, but we were pre-teens, so whatever) at any time, but if they are destroyed, you can trade regular units in any territory adjacent to sea at the rate of 3 units per destroyer and 10 per carrier group. This makes your original carrier groups relatively valuable and encourages irrational expansionism that often comes up short. You're welcome.

4. Nukes

At any time you can trade 20 units in one territory for a nuclear missile with defensive strength of zero. There is a three turn count-down, during which if the nuke is destroyed, it goes away. On the third turn after it was created, it can be used to either: a) wipe out all enemy (or city state) units in one territory, anywhere in the world (or all sea units in one sea territory), or; b) halt all enemy reinforcements (offensive and defensive), worldwide, for the next two attacking turns. This was the "EMP" version of the attack, and we thought ourselves very clever.

- - - - -

We tried some rules for air units (fighters and bombers) similar to the navy rule, but that got too complicated... At some point, you can just hang up Risk and play Tactics II or Panzer Blitz or something. We also tried some rules that prevented massive, multi-turn build ups of forces based on the idea that the populace would eventually not like huge standing armies hanging out for multiple years. But that required turn counters and... bleh.

Anyway. I just realized today that I had never chronicled these most excellent mods, and the Internet is where I'm supposed to put this stuff so that the group mind can benefit.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Heisenberg's Second Date

You said, "Yes." I don't know why.
The first went, I thought... bad.
To say the least. Your grace,
my clumsy humor not matched
so much as all opposed and all that
wine spilled on and in your shoe.
Why would you say, "Yes" to more?
I thought I knew before I called.
I thought I knew half way through
the first. All the awkward
silences. The food sent back.
The mention of the film
your ex was in. All that
and still the magic, unhoped... "Yes."

The joy of being wrong
is in me like a flare of burning paper.
And now I do not know
where this will go
but I am glad, so glad,
I so fucked up
the measurements.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taking education from information to knowledge

THIS article is the antidote to the stupid "Google is making us stupid" article I posted about yesterday. In the hierarchy of learning, we move thusly (mostly my definitions, blending some stuff I've picked up):

 1. Noise (undifferentiated stimulus). 2. Data (differentiated stimulus with understood measures). 3. Information (relationships between data). 4. Knowledge (how to use information usefully). 5. Wisdom (how to apply knowledge more usefully over time).

Schools used to be about teaching kids how to find and memorize information. Then they'd go to work and develop knowledge skills (and hopefully some wisdom). In a world where information seeking is much less frictional, we can either make the grotesque error of trying to add friction back into information finding ("Google is making us dumber") or we can move "up" one level in how and what we teach, seeking to impart knowledge -- the ability to *do useful and interesting things* -- to students rather than fill them up with information that is trivially obtained in most cases now.

I've said this for years: artists get it (it's one reason I love teaching at CCAD). You can't learn to draw, paint, sculpt, design, etc. by reading books about it. You have to DO THINGS to learn to do them. A lot of the new-ish pedagogy of entrepreneurship and leadership in business is built on understanding this ("fail early, fail often," etc.). In the arts and music, this is known as "practice." You don't pick up a guitar and expect that a knowledge of musical theory will make you a great player. You have to play for thousands of hours.

My brother John had a great book about the business of acting that he loaned me many years ago. Not the craft, but the biz; how to get an agent, when to join a union, etc. etc. At one point, the author says that there will be times when you'll be the most talented person at an audition, but you still won't get the gig. Because they need someone taller to match the romantic interest. Because they need someone who is less handsome or more quirky looking or can ride a motorcycle. His summation of this is profound:

"As children, we are rewarded for being 'good.' As adults, we are rewarded for being 'useful,' and nobody teaches us that transition."

Education needs to train people to be useful. And I don't mean in the "trade skills" kind of way. We need to train kids to be useful as thinkers, inventors, creators and cognizant citizens. We need them to understand not just how to learn, but how to learn to *do* things. How to move from being good information gatherers to knowledge hunters.

Articles about how Google is making us dumber are making us dumber

Read this article and then come back.

[rant on] I AM SO TIRED OF THESE "TECH IS MAKING US STOOPID" ARTICLES! The wrong-think in here is extraordinary. First there's this gem:

"The gap between a question crystallizing in your mind and an answer appearing at the top of your screen is shrinking all the time. As a consequence, our ability to ask questions is atrophying."

Is it? It is? How do you know this? Is there research that suggests that we're less able to ask questions? Is there a link you could share? Or did you not know how to ask Google the right question to find some research on the subject?

 And this fun bit...

"But knowledge doesn’t just fill the brain up; it makes it work better. To see what I mean, try memorizing the following string of fourteen digits in five seconds: 74830582894062. Hard, isn’t it? Virtually impossible. Now try memorizing this string of fourteen letters: "lucy in the sky with diamonds." This time, you barely needed a second. The contrast is so striking that it seems like a completely different problem, but fundamentally, it’s the same. The only difference is that one string of symbols triggers a set of associations with knowledge you have stored deep in your memory."

AAARGHHH!!! So much wrong! So very not! First of all, let's please not conflate "information" with "knowledge" or "memory." Three different things! And the lyrics to "Lucy in the Sky" were already in my head! ARRGGHHH! So I didn't need ANY TIME to memorize it. But even if it were, memorization is also not information or knowledge.

 The author closes with ye olde chestnut that humans should do what we're good at, and computers what they are. He says, "Wikipedia and Google are best treated as starting points rather than destinations." RIGHT. THEY ARE. ALMOST ALWAYS. Because the answer to my question (the information) is going to relate to one of two kinds of situations.

1) Casual, impact-free curiosity. This is the realm of IMDB and a lot of Wikipedia queries. "Who was that guy in 'Home Alone' with the shovel?" or "What was the name of Herod's wife?" These are questions for which the information itself is, generally, the desired end result. I'm not going to do anything with that information besides just know it. Maybe it's for something that will stick, maybe not. The only difference between doing this online vs. old school is speed and convenience.

2) Questions asked because you will be using them to accomplish something. For example, "Recipe for gluten-free birthday cake," "Directions to Pittsburgh from Columbus," "How to get grease out of a tie," "Where to shop for ladders," "What should I weigh?" etc. etc. In each case, the information (if used) will be part of a series of activities that will, together, generate knowledge. Because knowledge is information in a useful format. For example, if I get a good recipe and don't make the cake, I have not increased my knowledge. I cannot tell you if it is truly a good, gluten-free cake. Nor if it's a cake at all. Nor how hard to bake, how expensive, how nice it smells. Once I bake it, though, I have knowledge of the value of the recipe.

And that's a good way to understand the difference between what Google can do for you and what it can't. Google can find recipes. Only you can bake a cake. Google can give you some information (some good, some better, some awful, some wrong). Only you can turn it into knowledge.
Here's what I resent about articles like this, however. The conflation of these very different mental tasks absolutely ignores the cost (in time and money) of acquiring information in the pursuit of knowledge. Now, I'm not talking about "question 1" type stuff above. If you want to be an expert on a certain type of information, memorization and long-form research will be key. If you want to lecture on a topic, you need to know it in your own widdle haid. But if I don't know that there are (for example) freeware alternatives to Photoshop, I might spend a LOT of time and money saving up for Photoshop, only to find that it doesn't help me. The quick answer to the question, "Are there free alternatives to Photoshop" will free up a lot of my resources to actually DO THE KNOWLEDGE GATHERING THING (image editing) that I'm interested in.

Yes. There are types of thinking that we should all pursue. Yes. Curiosity is important. Yes. Deep, frustrating, interesting problems require that you practice doing deep, frustrating, interesting research. But helping me find the nearest gas station or the expected weather in Chicago is not going to atrophy my creativity or invention.

FWIW, they said the same stuff about teaching "regular people" to read back when the printing press came out. Since farmers and peasants etc. have no need for school learnin', why would they waste their time on books? I translate this sentiment into modern times by asking, "Since many working people's jobs don't require deep knowledge of arcane details and trivia, why should they have access to a tool that allows them 'easy' answers they don't know how to earn on their own? They should have to be scientists and inventors to know that stuff."

In closing, if you think you can learn how to play an instrument, drive a car, have better sex, etc. from the Internet, you're already dumb without Google. To learn things, you have to do things. All Google, Wikipedia, IMDB et al do is remove some of the friction from gathering the necessary parts to START learning. [/rant]

PS: I've NEVER been any good at memorization and I've never had a bit of trouble (either pre- or post-internet) doing creative, layered, long-form thinking. The two are categorically different activities IMHO.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Safe Words: A Zombie Sonnet

Deep down inside, we knew we were bad.
All of us. Everywhere. Everyone had
a cellular knowledge of what we had done
to all of our victims. And now we have come

to a drought of fresh blood. To a desert of flesh
where the ground is a stone, where the wind just a breath
of enmity, apathy, memory, dawn.
Alone with our horror. Our hunger now gone

to sleep with its victims, now marrow and hair.
The scent of them absent. No trace of them where
there once was a bike path, a playground, a mall.
We wait for a sign. We'll wait here while all

of the stars flicker out. Until time itself ends.
To reunite, finally, for dinner with friends.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Deep winter made Amelia Jesus.
"Mimi" to her friends, she skates the lake behind the farm
where no cows graze and no corn grows.
Walking on the water where
she'd dived last summer, touched the bottom,
swam to shore, kissed Donnie Blake
while they both dried in sun and breeze.

Sixteen soon, by next December she will drive
to see him weekends, stay the night, and maybe
maybe maybe maybe let him let him let him...

She slides a thin skin of change. A scant few inches
held between the piercing blue of Christmas sky and
a black like swollen pupils, grown to try
and catch the last pale winking light.

It never broke before.

"Wait until Christmas," was the rule. But whether
Mimi was a little heavier with muscle mass
from soccer and a lot of yoga
or the ice was thinner... still remembering a long
long Spring.

It didn't hurt. She wasn't even scared.
Couldn't feel the cold. Body soaked with shock
and chemicals and vertigo and
all she sees is white above. The pale
thin skin of change.

Her mother's shouts of, "Mimi! Mimi! Mimi!"
the last sounds heard as fingers tap
one last time
on something solid
and Amelia remembers,
"Oh, yes... Jesus dies."