Monday, May 28, 2007
Friday, May 25, 2007
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Mundare, again? Third time out here in less than six months, and the Giant Ukrainian Sausage is losing its novelty; in fact, it’s getting a bit creepy, with that weird kink in its loop, its unwholesome matte finish, its left-in-the-sun-too-long wrinkles. There’s much more to Kalyna Country ("Where culture meets adventure!") than iffy giant objects, though. Lots to attract the city-alienated looking for a place to be…
The wind-down of a whirl of a weekend, holiday Monday in The Corner Pub. Mid-afternoon locals propping up the bar, VLT spinners, proprietor giving the country welcome: hearty spiced with wary. We dare the jukebox and an oldtimer tells us the rules: “I don’t care what you play, long as you give us at least one Johnny Cash.” We forsake Johnny for Roseanne, spice the mix with ol’ Hank and Bobbie Gentry, and are rewarded with free loonies to continue DJing.
The first time out here was a wintry large-objects tour, the second was a jaunt to the Big Egg, specifically. This time the occasion is the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village’s spring opening and festival of Ukrainian dance. We’d seen the sign on our way back from Vegreville: “600 SHUMKA DANCERS!” How exciting is that? I tried (maybe I could have tried harder) to recruit every Ukrainian, sorta-Ukrainian and miscellaneous Slav I knew; my final cultural posse comprised myself, my parents, my fiancée and my roommate: a Polish family, a Russian and an ancestral Uke. It’d have to do.
Turns out the sign was a bit of a tease. The part of me that craves all things epic imagined six hundred Shumkas simultaneously, a whirling mass of feet, flowers, braids and baggy pants. Still, even doled out by the dozens, the dancers were pretty awesome to watch. During the final high-kicking Hopak, I got kind of excited imagining a Ukrainian remake of Gymkata, where a dancer blends Shumka with kick-boxing, creating an unbeatable hybrid martial art in order to take revenge on the ninjas that killed his father…
The Village itself is a trip, one of those “living museums” where the staff are all in character so you either have to play along or get really embarrassed; it’s like being at a dinner theatre, with cabbage rolls and plowing instead of alfredo sauce and shrill sitcom parodies. My girl got a little light in her eye at the thought of working or volunteering here – probably a bad idea for someone who’s been known to trance-channel ancient Galician folk songs when the vodka deactivates her astral defenses. She’d probably get so into character she’d become possessed, end up chasing some poor kid with an iPod down the dirt path shreiking “WITCH! WITCH!”
Still, the Village feeds those get-outta-town feelings… I mean, jeez; these people built a nation living in freakin’ cave-houses made out of turf! Why do I need an apartment, a van, a Wii and three liquor stores in walking distance? All I need is some land to squat on, an axe, some chickens…
Ah, maybe I’m just feeling like running ‘cause I didn’t manage to get what I’d wanted out of an urban long weekend. Who ever does? May Long is one of those times, like New Year’s Eve, when you feel morally obligated to have the most brilliant party-time possible. Shindigs sprout like spring weeds – what is it about August that means so many May birthdays? -- but a combination of party-greed and duty trapped me in a doomed do-everything venue-hopping plan. To hit more than two parties requires:
- Military timing
- Inhuman party-leaving willpower
- A mint’s worth of cabfare, or a sober driver
You end up like the lakeside dog in the fable – grab for too much and get no bone. Worse, I was the DD, and though it felt physically good to be bright-eyed and coherent, it sucks to be sober when everyone around you is going liquid: “Thizz… thizzziz my bes’ frenn! My BES’ frennn!” And you’re standing there, staring at the scene, going “So this is ‘partying’, huh? I remember it being cooler.”
They managed to party all right out here in Mundare; the Corner Pub rattles with dropped hints, rolled eyes and secretive smiles when the subject of the weekend comes up. Yeah, I could party with these people; the bar even has that nostalgic smoke-reek that takes me back to my earliest drinking days. And all I have to do is keep the jukebox queue filled with old-time country and western hits? How do you say “You’ve got yourself a deal” in Ukrainian?
Posted by DRZ at 4:24 PM
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Posted by DRZ at 1:08 PM
Friday, May 18, 2007
After all these years, to once again face an ancient nemesis, a phantom construct brought to life through the alchemy of electricity and mathematics: the disembodied digital zombie intelligence of Sun Tzu!
When last I did battle with the great Chinese military philosopher, dead in the flesh since the 5th century BC, it was on the CGA battlefields of The Ancient Art of War on my old Tandy 1000. That was over 20 years ago, and he kicked my ass then just as he’s kicking my ass now – with cold, dispassionate perfection.
This latest software resurrection of Master Sun is one of the AI opponents in Catan, the XBox Live Arcade version of Klaus Teuber’s near-perfect tabletop game The Settlers of Catan, and it’s a killer. Alexander, all go-for-broke action, I can read and deal with. Elizabeth, overcautious and naïve in resource trading, rolls over easy. Shaka’s tough, but hampered by the peculiar guilelessness of a warrior’s honor. Sun Tzu, though… he bides his time, sees the future, builds strength where you can't see it and unleashes it when you don’t expect it. He plays like…
…like a computer, I guess. It’s real easy to anthropomorphize when you’re playing Catan – the AI opponents feel like real people, with their own agendas and styles and infuriating quirks. The only things missing from this excellent digitization of tabletop Settlers are the constant bitching and moaning of poor losers (though the AIs’ slightly creepy use of animated emotes – blown kisses, tossed bombs, etc. – brings a bit of that) and the small pleasure of building little forts and towers with your reserve gamepieces while you wait for people to hem and haw their way though their turns.
The quality of Catan’s AI is what makes it work, as The Settlers of Catan is an intensely social game: the politics of resource trading, the exercising of vendettas, the cutting of desperate deals. The easy way of programming an AI – starting with mathematical perfection and then creating various difficulty levels by manipulating the frequency at which the program makes stupid errors – would have left Catan’s single-player experience feeling cheap and empty. For a strategy fan, the next-worst thing to an AI that wins by cheating is an AI that loses by being randomly retarded.
Of course, Catan is intended for online play, with real people thinking real thoughts, using human strategies, making honest human blunders, swearing human swears and hurling human sexual insults. Since you cant play a multiplayer game on a single system – really, there’s no way there could be a single-system multiplayer and have it reamin Settlers – going online is the only way to get the human experience from Catan. Aside from the obvious social problem – if you play over XBox Live, you have to play with XBox Live gamers -- I have one enormous difficulty with the idea of getting my settlers fix online: it would ruin my life.
Honestly time. I have an addiction problem, an increasingly common one: online games burrow right into my soul, so I have to avoid situations where they might snare me. I’ve been tentacled before and have always managed to shake myself free, but I know that if I got careless it’d be only a matter of time before real trouble would start. You think I don’t drool over World of Warcraft screenshots? I read about WoW, even the dumbest fanboy messageboard garbage, and my heart screams to be part of it, to join guilds and power-level and camp and bitch about nerfing and all the rest. Even a super-simple online strategy game like kDice (check it out) has been known to knock twelve hours out of my life at a sitting. So I have to stay away; I don’t even dare have an XBox Live Gold membership -- the simplicity, elegance and depth of Catan are so captivating I’d never get out if I got in.
So I get my social Settlers kick the old-fashioned way: out of the box, with whoever I can convince or cajole into playing. Meanwhile I hone my skills on the 'Box, imagining rivalries and relationships with pieces of software, cussing out the virtual Sun Tzu every time he surprises me with a perfectly executed flurry of roadbuilding to steal the Longest Road honor and cut me off from needed ore deposits, griping when that big baby Alexander won’t trade because I dicked him over with the robber one too many times, enjoying dumb Elizabeth’s coquettish kisses while I run her into the ground.
Posted by DRZ at 10:52 AM
Monday, May 14, 2007
There was a typically raucous crow court in the Mill Creek yesterday, right in front of my house. I ran down with my camera and MD recorder to capture the chaos. The crows, plus some jays and magpies, lost their shit for another 10 minutes then flew away.
I heard some crackly gurgles, thought it was a grouse or a baby or something, but then found this little guy. A flock will sometimes drive away-- or kill-- one bird.
He flew up, feebly clutched at a branch, then glided head-first into a spruce. I spent the next hour beside him watching him die. It was beautiful, but not pretty.
Nature's a bitch.
Posted by DRZ at 9:31 AM
Friday, May 11, 2007
Father-son team Thomas J. and Stuart Mitchell have apparently used the awesome power of cymatics, plus the skills Stuart developed as an RAF code-breaker in WWII, to unlock a "secretly coded piece of music" hidden for 600 years in the stonework of wingnut-fave mystery site Rosslyn Chapel, of The DaVinci Code infamy.
Check this reel for some sweet cymatics goodness:
Here's the Mitchells' story as told to the Sunday Mail [link] plus... some bonus supa-old-school cymatics courtesy of Wavemasta Hans Jenny himself:
Posted by DRZ at 9:50 AM
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
The view north through the window of somebody else’s office: vast fields of real-estate stretching out toward the hazy brown band on the horizon, the worrisome dirty halo from which pour riches.
Nearer by, just across the avenue, is the construction site for what I’m told will be a Sobeys, a downtown-revitalizin’ foodmart to take the pressure off the Save-On where the post-work rush hour requires full-time traffic control and one can line-read both People and Real Simple in the time it takes to get to a checkout.
I can’t see it from this angle, but I know its there – mostly there, for now -- on the plywood hoardings surrounding the site: impromptu guerrilla artshow, sixteen artists, sixteen pictures, flash-organized by the manic Sheri Barclay and slapped up in the wishin’-Lord-that-I-was-stoned early hours of Sunday morning. Illustrated nursery rhymes and pop-culture iconography, notional space flags and curated Elvis tapestries, the streetshow actually lasted 24 hours before the builders culled their first piece, a shocking pink celebri-collage featuring Bill Cosby. I can’t see that, either, but it’s been blogged…
Behind me, muted by two or three layers of the padded grey burlap that defines our Team’s habitrail, a coworker mutters emphatically into his telephone, working his real-estate deals. This is a trick lots of people are picking up, the art of keeping one’s voice down while maintaining something of the go-go, for-sure-for-sure confidence required to wheel n’ deal, a necessary survival skill for Edmontonians playing Condominium Tycoon on company time.
“We’ll make the fi--… we’ll get the fif--… no, yeah, no we’ll get the fifty back in… in less than two weeks, no, yeah, no, right, absolutely.”
Even streety slackers are talking property these days, pierced n’ baggy Whatever types walking down Whyte, shrugging noncommittally about flipping condos. Sixty per cent of all conversation taking place in Edmonton at any one time is about house prices, round-robin comparisons of how many thousands in how many months, and through it all the one thing every Edmonite knows for certain: if you’re renting, you are retarded; you are completely retarded; it is retarded to pay rent.
No kidding. Questions of equity aside, the life of a renter in Edmonton is the life of a fugitive, chased from building to building by the advancing forces of condominimization, or squeezed hard if you stay put. The notice doesn’t come from your landlord or building manager, either: one day you simply find the shit-eating grin of a realtor slipped under your door, offering you the exciting opportunity of buying your shitbox bachelor suite for a quarter-million dollars, and a week later the lobby and hallways fill with loudmouth suits actually rubbing their hands as they discuss the money they’ll be making while you’re scrambling for yet another round of deposit/first month/hookups.
And the elevators fill with graffiti:
thanks for making me move AGAIN
I hope your happy
I hate you mother fuckers
Given these feelings everywhere, given a climate where even the bought-in moneymakers are getting scared shitless – “Sure, I could sell this place for three hundred grand, but what then? I still have to fuckin’ live somewhere, man.” – and a new fear and loathing overtakes traditional beer and loafing, it’d be easy to read a construction-site artbombing as some kind of antidevelopment protest. But that’s exactly what it’s not! The name of the project – “Make It Not Suck” – says it all; it’s about making this shit easier to look at. Makeup, if not a mask, for the skungy plywood Face of Progress.
Or a blessed weekend giggle, at least; these are getting fewer and farther between. Edmonton long ago lost its status as a Slacker’s Paradise – this used to be the Reverse New York: if you couldn’t make it here, you couldn’t make it anywhere -- but even as it becomes less and less possible to keep it together in Browntown without working like a slavedog while swinging mortgage deals on your bathroom breaks, we’ve got to honor our heritage as laughing dilettante stoner art punks… even if we can only honor it on slow Sundays.
It’s either that, or flee to Winnipeg…
Posted by DRZ at 11:53 AM
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Sitting around a cozy kitchen table in the late-afternoon cool of the year’s first real summery Saturday, the requisite Coronas – sunshine beer! -- washing down a loaves-and-fishes joint of scavenged cheeba, the conversation somehow (my fault?) turns from whatever it had been – gardening, travel, Arrested Development, poutine – to the topic of videogames and their mind-bending near future.
I think it was the upcoming release of the Opera web browser for the Nintendo DS that got us started; at least, that’s what I gather from my notes scribbled on the back of the Wild Rose Brewery & Taproom flyer promising me of 15% off any drinkable, eatable or wearable next time I’m in Calgary. Stoners who care seem to agree: the combination of dual screens, touch interface, full wi-fi web browser, massive installed base and commodity pricing – and also, you know, games – means… something. Something big. Much of my noted discussion is obscured by a later sketch diagramming my plans to camperize my minivan, but from what I can make out we were excited about the possibility of some kind of internet phone application – no more quarters to The Man!
Easier to make out, in big block letters laid down with a firm hand, is a phrase I wish I could seal in a Quantum Envelope and mail back in time to the Beat poets:
“MOTION SENSING IS THE NEW RUMBLE”
No surprise the party partisans are down with the Wii, when they can get it. All that arm-waving and carrying-on not only provides a fun vector of entry for non- or casual gamers (that’s code for “girls”) but also acts to counteract the screen stereotype of the slack-jawed stoner, swaddled in a stinky alpaca poncho someone left at his place, twitch-clutching the control pad as Super Nintendo bleeps and explosions emanate from the perfectly good TV somebody just totally left in the alley, dude. Images of fun-buzzed young hipsters prancing around like giddy fauns with wiimotes are going to be key in our upcoming “Today’s 420!” image-rehabilitation marketing campaign, alongside chic lady CEOs with posing with their Vuitton vaporizers and smiling astronauts hotboxing the ISS. Coming soon to a bus shelter near you.
Anyway, the New Rumble. In a recent entry on games blog Destructoid, poster Reverend Anthony ran down his list of the “top five gameplay innovations to look forward to this year,” and right there in the middle – between the “procedural generation” of Will Wright’s Spore and the real-time conversation system in BioWare’s Mass Effect -- was the first thing my Friends Indeed and I thought of when the Wii concept was unveiled: swordfighting! Specifically, true motion-tracking, one-to-one swordfighting, unlike the, sub-Morrowind slash-triggering of Red Steel, which was as disappointing as getting a “Lettuce Garden Kid” for Christmas in 1983. Realistic blade battling of the type wishfully mimed by every nerd who picks up a wiimote would be the killer app for motion sensing; how you gonna keep ‘em down on the button-pressing farm, once they’ve seen sword-swinging Paree?
Deep technical and design problems lie in the way of realizing our D&D dreams. One that worries me is a sort of feedback deficiency: onscreen, your flashing blade will now and then be blocked by solid objects – other swords, trees, people’s skulls, etc. – while your actual arm goes wwhiffff through the air. How do we get that delicious curtain rod-on-curtain rod feeling of contact that makes fake swordfighting so fun? The wiimote’s anemic rumbler is inadequate to the arm-rattling task; what we need is a special swordfighting wiimote with beefed-up feedback, a heavy-ass hilt packing one of those old-school pinball kickers that’ll splinter your damn ulna. OK, one problem solved.
More fundamental: you ever watch people playing Wii Sports tennis – or, dear Lord, Wii Sports boxing? It’s random, frantic, desperate and not a little dangerous to bystanders. Any swordfighting game is going to be Dark Honor: Legends of the Blademaster on the box but Random Beating: Flailings of the Spastic in play – especially in a multiplayer game; might as well simulate seal clubbing, or a LARP session. But we – our ancestors, actually -- may have solved this problem, according to another bit of scrawl from the flap of a pack of du Mauriers. See, at the dawn of the modern age, dudes had a similar difficulty. It was necessary to turn the barbarity of sword-butchery into a gentlemanly pursuit: fencing. Over time, a complex framework of rules governing the flow of combat were developed. Basically, the first fencer to “establish a threat” has priority, or “right-of-way”, meaning his hits will take precedence over those of his opponent, even if said opponent has… he…zzzzzzzzzzzz…
Huh? OK, maybe not such an exciting idea. I’m sure Nintendo or one of their third-party developers will figure out how to make swordfighting work on the Wii. Or… well… hey! It doesn’t even have to be on the Wii! Sony’s launching a new camera peripheral for the PS3 that could support decent motion-tracking capabilities, and their controller infrastructure already supports Sixaxis tilt-sensing… shit, it all adds up! Motion sensing is the new rumble; Sony’s going to sneak out from under the cover of their dark cloud of early marketing mistakes and eat Nintendo’s lunch with a wiimote knockoff!
I ought to be snobby, dismissive, indignant or otherwise fanboyish about Sony’s biting the Wii thing, but somehow I can’t muster it; the daydreaming legions of gamer-stoners are getting impatient, on side with whoever manages to deliver the rattle and clash of real-time swordfighting to their flag-curtained squats.
I mean, to their airy urban-minimalist lofts. Today’s 420!
Posted by DRZ at 3:59 PM