A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Entertaining Arts: April

Here I've collected a number of beautiful, fascinating, and strange things from the month gone by.  I don't have too much to say about each one individuality, but they are all wonderful in their own right.

Nutella Heist

I never knew what Nutella was until I got to college.  Ah, how attending university changed my life.  When I saw my roommate spreading it on bread and combining it with peanut butter, I recoiled in fear.  That's not jelly!? thought my once closed-off mind.  But now I understand exactly why a band of devious thieves in Bad Hersfeld, Germany nabbed FIVE METRIC TONS of Nutella.  These same thieves are assumed to have stolen a large supply of energy drinks from the same place in the past.  Who knows what they'll strike next?

Space: The Final Frontier

It is fair to assume that the whole of human existence is based upon competition.  Striving for food, shelter, competing with other animals and other tribes for control of land and resources.  And of course, man of the present is notorious for competing with man of the past in all efforts to emblazon the world with phallic symbols.  Recently, however, NASA's Mars rovers have taken that struggle one step farther: from Earth...to Mars...

Yes, one of our beloved rovers has left mankind's mark on the red planet.  But if manhood on Mars is a little too lewd for you, then I suggest you look to our kind and innocent neighbors to the north, whose journey through the universe has answered that eternal question: "What happens when you squeeze a wet towel in space?"  It will blow your mind...

Wilder Mann

Charles Fréger spent two years of his life traveling through Europe to collect little known pieces of history and culture.  Throughout that journey, he found a wide variety of "wild men" that were connected to the seasons, rituals, and traditions in pagan culture.  He documented them and that series, "Wilder Mann," is on display at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York through May 18th.  Since, I don't live in New York, I'm anxiously awaiting my copy of the book.

Mock Toy Poodles

An Argentinian man bought what he thought were two toy poodles from an outdoor market only to discover that they were steroid injected ferrets.

Gentleman Banned in South Korea

The pop musician PSY's first music video since his incredibly popular Gangnam Style has been subject to a little bit of controversy over in South Korea.  The new song, Gentleman, is an unsubtle parody of classy and fashionable men who lack the "qualities of a gentleman."  Throughout the video, men are constantly shown rudely mistreating the women around them.  However, that's not the reason it was banned by one Korean broadcaster.  It was banned because he kicked a yellow cone that read "No Parking" in Hangul.

Friday, April 26, 2013


"...and we played rock-paper-scissors for the smaller room."

"Wait.  What did you do?" my grandmother asked.

"Both of us wanted the smaller room-"

"No, what did you play?"

If you ever want to challenge yourself, try to teach a nearly blind, eighty-five year old woman rock-paper-scissors.

I stammered through an explanation of this ancient art, as my grandmother stared blankly into her clenched fist.  For me, rock-paper-scissors had always existed.  It was one of those schoolyard activities, or rather, laws that controlled the fates and one which had been in affect since the beginning of time.  Occasionally, new elements were introduced: handguns and dynamite, but they were only short lived fads that tired out their welcome not long into the first game played with them.  The classic triality were perfect, able to dictate rule and order before we even knew what they were.

It's place as the eternal final word was only justified by my brief tour of Korea, where I learned school aged children were playing "gawi-bawi-bo" with an almost religious reverence.  All disputes, no matter how great or small, could be determined by this game, and kids would flex their muscles ahead of time in order to improve their... luck(?)... or more likely, put their plumage on display.  This made it clear that rock-paper-scissors was an international problem-solver for children everywhere.

My grandmother quickly took the game to be a descendant of "Eeny-meeny-miny-moe," which she noted as being far superior in her own unique way of condemning strange and foreign things.  While it seems odd that she would never hear of this game until far into old age, the real issue was that she shattered my very understanding of reality.  My head swirled with fears, Wh-what if everything I know is a lie?  If this one, obviously universal aspect of human existence, this single, universal law, is not actually universal... then there's nothing I can believe in...

For a long, black moment, I had become a nihilist.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: The Game

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce is one of those short stories that I absolutely adore.  Written in 1890 when the traumatic events of the Civil War were still locked in the minds of many across the country, this tale focused on a Confederate sympathizer being executed by hanging at (where else?) Owl Creek Bridge.  The man spends the last few moments of his life thinking of his family and desperately planning some sort of escape.  And as luck would have it, as he drops from the side of the bridge, the rope snaps and he is freed into the water.  I'd hate to ruin the rest for anyone who hasn't read this wonderful story, and as stated earlier, its a "short" story, so you could read it really, really fast.  Right now even!  OR you could sit on your front porch and listen to it for free from Librivox.org.

OR you could even play through the adventure yourself, taking on the role of our hero, Peyton, as he escapes from the Union's grasp in a pixelated rendition of the classic tale.  James Cox's video game adaptation of the game hits all the right notes (Speaking of which, it also has a great, one song soundtrack that you could download with the game).  I can only think of a hand full of interactive adaptations of literature, and most of them waver between decent and god awful (Dante's Inferno, I'm looking at you!), but this one really hits the spot.

While Cox's version is strong enough to stand on its own, I strongly recommend reading the original story with it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Found Books: The Adventure of the Speckled Band

"Very sorry to knock you up, Watson," he said, "but its the common lot this morning.  Mrs. Hudson has been knocked up, she retorted upon me, and I on you."
Lack of context is fun.

During my thrift shop rummaging, I crossed paths with a fifty cent copy of The Best of Sherlock Holmes, a small collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle staring the most famous detective of them all (with the possible exceptions of Batman and Detective Conan).  Few literary characters are as iconic or popular as Holmes, which makes him one of those rare, fascinating characters, like Captain Ahab, that everyone knows about even if they haven't read something with him in it.

I've always had an extremely limited understanding of the mystery genre.  However, Holmes has been (physically) close to me since birth.  His profile sat upon the binding of a massive tome on my mother's book shelf, and ever since I can remember I've known who he was.  And yet, I'd only read two tales featuring Holmes until discovering this book.  The first story in the "Best of..." was The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

Thanks to this and The Case of Jennie Brice, I'm starting to understand just what the mystery genre is all about.  For starters, both mysteries are less about who did it and more how it was done.  In both stories, we pretty much know from the start that the only suspect is the culprit.  The surprise twist is not that it was someone we'd never guess, but the clever way in which they committed the crime.  Also, both books tend to lack the modern interpretation of excitement.  No shoot outs.  No wild chases.  Most everything is delivered through dialog or observation.  Holmes stories are extremely dialog heavy and very dry to boot.

That said, The Adventure of the Speckled Band is not boring.  After a woman's sister dies under mysterious circumstances, she finds herself in the exact same situation and goes to Holmes for help.  That's not an uninteresting premise, but then you read something like, "He has a passion for Indian animals, which are sent over to him by a correspondent, and he has at this moment a cheetah and a baboon which wander freely..." WAIT!  What?!  Still in that dry, analytic tone, we just read a man lets two wild and very dangerous animals roam merrily around his property.

I'm not sure whether that dry tone aids or detracts from the absurdity, but it makes the Holmes character that much more likable.  Watching him solve the case with nonchalance is the best part of the book.  We like Sherlock because he's a good detective and just so damned as-matter-a-fact about everything.  Watson's narration seems to match that tone just fine.  Seeing the calm and scientific Holmes solve cases in his calm, scientific way in a calm, scientific voice is what seems to make the character such an enjoyable one... That, and this:
"You are Holmes, the meddler."
My friend smiled.
"Holmes, the busybody."
His smile broadened.
"Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!"
Holmes chuckled heartily.  "Your conversation is most entertaining," said he. "When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draft."
How could you not love that man?

This particular story can be found in several collections besides the random one I picked up, downloaded for free as an audio book from Librivox.org, or bought for the Amazon Kindle for only a dollar.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


There was the nicest rain yesterday.  I had been working outside, cleaning my grandmother's horribly, horribly dirty patio when a light sprinkle came down around me.  This was cleansing rain.  Rain that makes a hot and tired body feel clean like a shower, instead of just wet.  Soon enough, it was a right downpour and I had taken shelter.  But afterwards, when everything but the final drops caught in the treetops had landed, a massive rainbow hung in the sky, clear and unbroken.

I casually mentioned it to my grandma and she nearly leaped from her seat and, expertly wielding her walker, lunged to the front door.  On her way, I became increasingly concerned that, due to her failing vision, she wouldn't be able to see it.  I think she might have felt the same way, because once she had made it down our drive and looked up in its direction, she released a exasperated sigh of relief, "Oh...a rainbow..."

She stood starring at the phenomenon for a time before turning to me and saying, "Do you know what a rainbow means?"

There was a short pause before I said, "Leprechauns?..."  


There was another short pause before I said, "Luck?..."


Then there was another short pause as I recollected everything I knew about rainbows and everything I knew about my grandmother in my mind, trying to find that one common point where they met.  Religion.  "OH! The flood!"

History and mythology are riddled with rainbows.  Since man first looked up at the sky in the aftermath of a storm and saw all the co...well I guess, all the colors of the rainbow, he has been inventing stories about its significance.  The Flood stories from the Book of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh are two very similar examples of the symbolic nature of the rainbow.  Rainbows were used as a promise from god/s to never flood the planet again.

Alternatively, rainbows have been perceived as bridges to other worlds.  Norse mythology portrays rainbows as literally just that.  Bifrost was a rainbow bridge connecting the human world of Midgard to the godly realm of Asgard.  In the Japanese origin myth, the one famous for a woman dying while giving birth to a fireball, the creators of the world descended from the heavens on a rainbow.  A much more modern tale, The Wizard of Oz, has its hero traveling through a tornado into the Land of Oz, and of all the things the film version is known for, "Over the Rainbow" is what people tend to remember best.  Aside from being a metaphor, that song is essentially about another world beyond a rainbow.

Then there are the stories about chasing rainbows.  Irish folklore has produced the most famous rainbow-themed legend.  At the end of a rainbow sits a pot of gold guarded by a Leprechaun.  If one manages to find the gold at the base of the rainbow, he will have nothing but trouble from its keeper.  One episode of the Japanese anime Mushishi is dedicated to man who spends his entire life in pursuit of a single elusive rainbow, hoping to capture it.  Both of these can be cautionary tales of following one's dreams or ambitions.

But aside from the stories, the fantasies, the myths and legends, we know exactly what a rainbow is.  It's water droplets in the Earth's atmosphere reflecting sunlight (he says, oversimplifying).  John Keats didn't particularly care for science solving such mysteries when he wrote his poem "Lamia."  Of course, Keats is wrong.  The science of a rainbow does not detract from its beauty.  It adds to it.  If we unweave the rainbow, we can see every little droplet of water floating in the sky as a beautiful part of an incredible whole, and the stories, by no means, lose their value.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Atmospheric Bunny: Badland

There's a great game you can play on the iDevices called Badland, where the player controls flying head-shaped creatures called "clones" through shadowy pathways.  What makes the game really neat is that it manages to be a full and fulfilling experience while also being a one-button game.  All the player does is touch the screen to move up and not touch the screen to fall back down.  This simple (and responsive) control never gets old because of widely varying "power-ups" and obstacles.

It's good.  Completely unique in a sea of mundanity.  Buy it in the Apple Store.

Now, in love with this game as I am, I decided to look it up (via Google, of course) and maybe read an interview or check the website for information.  I did this because I was curious about the games narrative, which is a largely implied one.  I didn't know the clones were called "clones," until I had seen a score card on the main menu stating how many clones had survived.  The only story in the game is through gameplay with no dialogue or... I'm getting off topic.  I was curious, and I wanted to know more.  I looked it up.

Then I noticed that a few early links in the Google search described Badland as "atmospheric," including the game's website.  This wasn't strange.  Every game that could be described as "dark" or "moody" has been called "atmospheric" at some time or another, which would probably be an unfair misuse of the word.  But Badland is really an atmospheric game.  The art design is very ghostly, where the foreground is all black silhouettes and the background is foggy and unfocused.  It helps to create a very isolated, other-worldly mood in the game.

Added to that is the bunny rabbit.  The bunny rabbit felt significant in this game... thank the gods for games or else I could probably never say that sentence.  It is the only creature I noticed that has any genuine resemblance to a living being in this world.  Even the flying motion of the clone as it flaps through the air doesn't seem particularly bird-like.  It makes me kind of glad I could only see the poor creature's silhouette.  But the rabbit is a rabbit, and it book ends the game.  It is the first living creature you see at the beginning and it is the last you see at the end.  It's curious then that it is so familiar to us, the players, while everything else (including our avatar) is very ghostly and alien.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

If Only Reality Could Be So Poetic

Yesterday as news poured in about the Boston bombing, I sat an watched for an hour thinking and thinking and becoming cold and tired as my grandmother puttered about the house lamenting the fate of humanity.  I listened and watched and listened and hated every minute of it until I could take no more.  I snapped up the remote and turned it to The History Channel.  "Ever since I was a boy, I loved trains!" a man said as rockin' music played along the hot shot trains...

I spent two ungodly minutes on that channel before finding refuge in the Western bliss of TCM's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  This is not the kind of film one should probably watch to find peace with the world. The bad guys are rats, the good guys are bastards, and the moral lessons are confused or ambiguous.  But Sergio Leone makes a beautiful film.  The unforgettable final shootout lacks any running or diving behind cover.  It's just three men, each intent upon the same goal, waiting for the others to draw.  All the while, the music builds and builds and you creep up in your chair inch by inch until there's no room left to move, afraid they'll fire the instant you blink.

Before that climatic ending, two of our heroes, the "Good" and the "Ugly" (the only names I'm able to recall at the moment) get caught in the middle of a Kafkan battle between the North and the South over a bridge.  The Union Captain describes it to them this way:
The Rebs have decided that bridge is the key to this whole area. Stupid, useless bridge! Flyspeck on Headquarters' maps. Headquarters has declared we must take that ridiculous flyspeck. Even if all of us are killed. Otherwise the key'll get rusty and just be a spot on the wall.
The violence, all the death and devastation, is thrown upon the innocent by far off men and over what?  A bridge.  A worthless bridge.  Our two heroes end up destroying that bridge.  Not to make the world a better place.  Not to end the fighting.  But to move the conflict away, so they can cross the river.  And when they finally blow it up, after a barrage of cannon fire, the two awaken like from a dream to see that everyone has gone, except for a lone, dying Confederate soldier.

The Good gives this man a coat and cigar, showing him purposeful and patient kindness in the aftermath of pointless conflict, before he slips away and our heroes travel into the graveyard for the final battle.  This moment, the Good's act of kindness, is almost reminiscent of the toll one must pay death before journeying aboard his raft into the land of the dead.  Then they have that great, long stand-off.  Acknowledging and understanding the build, the moment before somebody is going to die, the fleeting uncertainty of life.  If only reality could be so poetic.

A few minutes later, I was back to that unmusical reality, but this time in a different way.  Despite the tragedies that had occurred, despite the tragedies that always seem to occur without relent, I could see the swarming hope and love of distant friends.  Online they were coming together, showing concern, talking, and pointing out the best in the event: the people running toward the explosions, not away, the large numbers of police and doctors on the scene because of the marathon, so when disaster struck, they could act with incredible speed.

And a post by Patton Oswalt kept being reposted and shared:
"I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, 'Well, I've had it with humanity.'
But I was wrong. I don't know what's going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

"But here's what I DO know. If it's one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.

"But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

"So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, "The good outnumber you, and we always will."
I'm not going to pretend that there is some thematic connection between The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and the bombing in Boston.  God no!  It's just valuable to take a step away sometimes, remove yourself from emotional moments and problems, so you can look at them again in different ways.  Find peace during conflict for your own sanity if nothing else.  Then you may be able to see how the good thrives against the bad.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Found Books: The Case of Jennie Brice

"I had done a wrong thing, and I was glad of it.  And sitting there in the darkness, I went over my own life again.  After all, it had been my own life; I had lived it; no one else had shaped it for me.  And if it was cheerless and colorless now, it had had its big moments.  Life is measured by big moments.
"If I let the two children in the dining-room have fifteen big moments, instead of five, who can blame me?"
As I was scrounging through my local thrift shops, I came across what looked to be a cheap, pulpy novel titled The Case of Jennie Brice and having very little experience with mystery literature, I thought  it would make an entertaining look into the genre and if nothing else, it would be a fun read.

Starring at the cover, we see a man with dangling cigarette rowing toward the lit window in a building half buried under water.  My experience with film noir (as well as common sense) had taught me to believe that this would be the hero of our story.  The brave and smug detective who catches the crook and wins the girl.  But no, our hero, Mrs. Pittman, is a middle-aged woman with a lamentable past and our detective, Mr. Holcombe, is a strange, old man who floats around flooded city streets tossing raw liver to dogs.

The story takes us to a poor neighborhood in Pittsburg during flood season.  Characters travel along the streets on raft and boat with nonchalance.  The floods are an annual event that the people of Pittsburg had gotten used to, and a unique backdrop for a murder mystery.  One of Mrs. Pittman's boarders is seen fleeing the boardinghouse after his wife's disappearance.  It's up to Mrs. Pittman and Mr. Holcombe to solve the case!

The mystery itself is not particularly intriguing.  The protagonists do not need to run through a cast of suspicious characters in order to find the killer.  No chases.  No espionage.  Instead, the most interesting parts of the novel surround Mrs. Pittman's own mysterious life.  We are given several moments to reflect on Mrs. Pittman's past, which is never fully revealed to us, and her relationship with a girl who doesn't know she is Mrs. Pittman's niece.  Relationships and mistakes are major themes throughout the work and there we can find the real heart of the book.

The author, Mary Roberts Rinehart, turned out to be a lot more fascinating than I would have guessed.  There are influential writers we study in school and then there are influential writers we do not.  She unfortunately fell into the latter category for me.  Rinehart is largely responsible for a style of mystery writing called "Had I But Known" where the narrator recounts her actions connected to tragic events.  She also wrote a play called "The Bat" which was instrumental in the creation of Bob Kane's comic book hero, Batman.

Hardily recommended reading by an author I just became very curious about.  If you want to read it you can search your local book store, buy it on Amazon, or listen to it on Librivox.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Poems About Royalty (Sort of)

Digging around in a local thrift store, I yanked Harvest Poems, a collection of works by Carl Sandburg, off the shelf.  I opened it up to the the below poem and immediately bought it...

Name Us A King
Name us a king
who shall live forever--
a peanut king, a potato king,
a gasket king, a brass-tack king,
a wall-paper king with a wall-paper crown
and a wall-paper queen with wall-paper jewels. 
Name us a king
so keen, so fast, so hard,
he shall last forever--
and all the yes-men square shooters
telling the king, "Okay Boss, you shall
         last forever! and then some!"
telling it to an onion king, a pecan king,
a zipper king or a chewing gum king,
any consolidated amalgamated syndicate king--
listening to the yes-men telling him
he shall live forever, he is so keen,
         so fast, so hard,
an okay Boss who shall never bite the dust,
never go down and be a sandwich for the worms
        like us--the customers,
        like us--the customers.
I'm not so sure that this poem is really about kings, and that reminded me of one of my favorite poems...

The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Well, there we go.  Two poems about emperors and kings that aren't really all that much about emperors or kings.  Unless they are, I dunno.  Interpret it yourself.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Elisha Murders Children

Yesterday, as I was reading about bears, I was reminded of my favorite Bible story...

"And [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria." - 2 Kings 2:23-25 (KJV)

It's easy to understand why nobody leaves a chair open for Elisha during Passover.  He was a fairly intense man.  Some might have called him brash, crotchety, cantankerous, or down-right terrifying at times.  These attributes make a few tales involving ol' Bald Head hilarious romps through obstinance and constant irritation.

The above story, chosen from the King James Bible for its use of "she bears," is a fantastic example of the Bible as more parable than fact.  I somehow doubt scores of children were actually slaughtered by bears just for making fun of male pattern baldness, but it makes a good story for Grandpa to tell those obnoxious, little brats.

And if nothing else, it's the kind of story you have to read a couple times out of sheer bewilderment, which certainly makes it a lot of fun to read and share.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Found Books: Indian Legends of Devils Tower

Playing Year Walk, a game about Swedish folklore, got me thinking about other kinds of folklore.  Which is nice, because I recently dug up a book on Native American folklore called First Encounters: Indian Legends of Devils Tower.

Published in 1982, First Encounters: Indian Legends of Devils Tower opens like a love letter from the editor to Dick Stone, a man who greatly influenced her life and spent a significant amount of time traveling between tribes collecting stories about Devils Tower.  What he accumulated were a variety of stories that shared what I found to be a remarkable number of similarities, despite coming from different peoples.

The most common stories, or I suppose story, is about the origin of Devils Tower.  It is explained several different ways by members of the Kiowa, Crow, and Cheyenne tribes.  Others contributed stories about Devils Tower, but I want to focus on the similar origin myths, which often involved a bear (usually a "holy bear" that cannot be easily killed) trying to catch people, the earth growing up into the sky to save them, and the bear trying to climb up, leaving long scratch marks along the side of the mountain.

The wonderful artwork on the cover of the book seems to mix together a couple of the Cheyenne legends.  In the first, the bear is remarkably huge.  In the second, a group of seven brothers scales the rock in order to escape the holy bear, who instead of being colossal, is able to leap higher and higher toward them until the youngest and most (magically) powerful of the brothers killed it with a blunt arrow.

Women often play a central role in the stories.  Typically they are victims of the bear, being chased as they pray to the Great Spirit for help.  To aid them either the Great Spirit or the earth itself decides to rescue them by making the land around them grow high up into the sky where they are safe.  Often times, particularly in the Cheyenne stories, the bear is drawn to a beautiful woman.  She will either be turned into a bear herself or must be rescued by her husband.

One Cheyenne story turned this narrative into a tale of two sisters.  The bear is attracted to the eldest sister as she gathers turnips.  The younger sister notices that she is going for such a long time every day and eventually tags along, which angers the bear.  The younger sister eventually tells the tribe and they flee to Devils Tower while the bear chases after.  Then the older sister carves out hand holds in the mountainside for everyone to escape the bear.

Of course, my versions are stripped down to their skeletons.  They are given in far greater detail in the book, which can be purchased on Amazon or from the Devils Tower National History Association.  I'll also leave the first story in the book below for any interested parties as a preview.  And if you are interested in folklore and mythology, especially pertaining to Native Americans, then you should consider buying this.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bring a Companion: Year Walk

In the old days, man tried to catch a glimpse of the future in the strangest of ways...

Year Walk is a game you could be playing right now on your iDevice instead of reading this... and you probably should be doing just that, because it is good.

If you don't believe me, you can go to Metacritic and find some reviews.  Look at the little numbers by each one and notice how close to 100 they are... pretty close.  If you're not convinced, read those reviews.  If you're still not convinced, buy the game and find out for yourself.  There's not much like it.

In fact, I dare say, there's nothing like it.  Year Walk was created by a Swedish development team to be about Swedish folklore.  And it's fascinating stuff, but cryptic and kind of could use a little explaining.  The problem is that nothing is outwardly explained by in the game.  You're just supposed to see these strange visions while "year walking" through the woods and take them at face value, but "why is there a horse swimming in a lake with dead babies?"  You almost need someone to explain the symbolism of it to you.

You need a FREE APP like the Year Walk Companion to explain it to you.  Aside from the explanations being genuinely interesting, it's a pretty awful thing to force your players to do extracurricular reading just to enjoy a game to its full potential... but that is exactly what you'll have to do while playing this game.  That's what you'll want to do.  Year Walk uses the concept of guide books and companion apps in a way I've never seen before and with great success.

It's hard to keep from spoiling it, but I told you "you should be playing it right now."

Monday, April 8, 2013

North Korea

Back when I was teaching in Korea, the North had performed a missile test and the next day students asked if I was worried that North Korea would attack the United States.  I turned the question around, asking if they were concerned about the North attacking the South.  What I got in reply was a mix of good humored pity and confusion.  Of course, the North was not going to attack South Korea.

Their reaction is something I have a hard time conveying to people who ask me how the South Koreans feel toward the looming threat.  This, they usually ask after saying, "Boy, I bet you're glad you got out of there when you did!"  Koreans aren't living in a constant state of panic, especially not the young ones.  A friend recently posted THIS ARTICLE on his Facebook page and I thought I'd share it here.  It seems to embody my experiences and understanding fairly well.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Real Animal Mash-Ups

If you've never seen the children's TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, then I strongly recommend it.  We are all aware that there are children's programs out in the ether that do not talk down to their audience and can be just as enthralling to an adult with an imagination as they can be to a child.  Avatar is one of those shows.  But, I'm not here to extol its cartoon virtues.  I want to talk about animal mash-ups.

In Avatar, a majority of the creatures are essentially hybrids of real world animals.  There are platypus-bears, badger-moles, vulture-wasps, and polar bear-dogs.  Even a creature called a penguin has some strikingly mammalian features despite its name.  In fact, at one point the show's protagonists are baffled by a bear... not a platypus-bear or an armadillo-bear.  Oh no.  "Just bear." The non-hybrid nature of the creature is what boggles the mind.

Yet the wacky mixed-together characteristics of animals in the show aren't that different from some in reality.  Let's look at a few creatures with dual names are features...

Hog Badger

If you need to figure out a way to make a creature just a tad cuter than it already is, a tiny pig snout will do wonders.  It's not hard to guess where people got the name "hog badger."  This animal is found in the same family as other badgers, weasels, and otters.  Aside from the snout, a hog badger doesn't really have too much in common with a pig.

Hog - Hog Badger - Badger

Kangaroo Mouse

Kangaroo mice are extraordinary, little jumpers.  While most mice scurry along the group on all fours, the bipedal kangaroo mouse stands tall.  Its legs can sometimes be the edge it needs to escape hungry predators.

Kangaroo - Kangaroo Mouse - Mouse

Panda Bear

The giant panda has managed to confuse and irritate scientists throughout history since it shares characteristics with two different species: bears and raccoons.  The most import thing to remember is that when Westerners first discovered the bear, they didn't assume it was a panda at all.  Then someone was suggested that it was related to the red panda... And sure, the two have similarities, but now we know they're not in the same family.  So the panda bear is not actually a panda.  The name just stuck.

Panda - Panda Bear - Bear

Raccoon Dog

If you have any interest in Japanese culture or Super Mario video games, then you have probably heard of the tanuki at one time or another.  In Japanese folklore and mythology, they are often portrayed as somewhat fey or supernatural creatures with big, meaty balls.  In English, we call 'em raccoon dogs, because they look like raccoons and they're dogs (well, canids).

Raccoon - Raccoon Dog - Dog

Turkey Buzzard (Turkey Vulture)

Now here's the real freak among freaks.  Unlike, panda bears, raccoon dogs, kangaroo mice, and hog badgers, the turkey buzzard is not technically either of its names.  In American English, the word buzzard refers to a vulture, however in the Old World, buzzard tends to refer to a hawk.  It's also not a turkey, and it might not be that related to a vulture.  All these things are kind-a-still in debate.  But one thing is for sure, you can see where we got the turkey in its name.

Turkey - Turkey Vulture - Vulture

Friday, April 5, 2013


"PUNKSNOTDEAD is like a punk rock song: brief, brash, energetic, and a hell of a lot of fun." - Paul Hack (Indiegames.com)

The above pretty much describes that game perfectly.  PUNKSNOTDEAD plops you down into a crowded parking lot or sidewalk and lets you punch away at anyone and everyone around to a grimy punk track about (what else?) getting punched.

There's a particular art style the game uses that really fits the punk rock vibe.  It's a minimalist design: black background and pink characters.  Occasionally, a green gunner will appear in the crowd.  Your avatar is virtually indistinguishable from anyone else.  Through using your only real powers, jumping and punching, can you separate yourself from the fold.  Alternatively, the green gunners change color because they are a threat.  Not to the meandering, indifferent public, of course.  No, no.  They're only a threat to you.  They're only attacking you, the individual.

Definitely check out the game and its one song soundtrack in the link above.  PUNKSNOTDEAD is for Windows and can run on a computer held together with shoe string and duct tape (like mine).  Also, look to THIS SITE for other works by its creator.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Found Books: Mushroom Cookery

I hated mushrooms as a child.  Thinking back on it, I honestly can't understand what was wrong with me.  It was that youthful intolerance for experimenting with foods that curses so many of us.  But there was one moment when my parents perfectly tricked me into adoring mushrooms.  I had found my mother's "gnome book," which was literally a scientific guidebook on gnomes, and I guarded like a treasure, reading it over and over again.

Inspired by this tome, I decided that my family should have a "Gnome Dinner."  We would dress in pointy hats, made from construction paper of course, and eat a traditional gnome meal.  But what to be the main course?  Gnomes are too small eat chicken or ham, so my father proposed a dish I'd never heard of before: portabella mushrooms.  He claimed that they were giant toadstools which tasted like meat.  For at least one meal, I had been convinced that mushrooms were delicious.

Now, I can't get enough of them.  Yet these fungi have been both a blessing and bane to mankind throughout most of existence.  You can find an endless ocean of horror stories surrounding them.  Some are ancient.  Others might have happened last week to inexperienced foragers.  It's all a matter of knowing.  Mushrooms are a food unlike any other.  We can assume the corn will be edible.  We can assume the cow will make beef.  But mushrooms... mushrooms require training.  They require thought and care.

As the introduction to my thrift store find, the 1980 Garden Way Bulletin Mushroom Cookery, claims: "In a recent year you and I and other Americans enjoyed some 300 pounds of commercially grown mushrooms.  We also went into the woods and fields to harvest them, and some of us even grew them in our own cellars."  Sadly, Mushroom Cookery doesn't concern itself with mushroom hunting, growing, or whether or not that one you found by the fence post is poisonous (and it probably is).  Instead, it's filled to the brim with recipes for cooking mushrooms, tending to reference them as a single, unvarying species.  For "Shrimp and Mushroom Salad," one needs a half-pound of mushroom buttons... but what kind of mushroom is either left to the imagination or assumed to be the "generic brand."

Click for Shrimp and Mushroom Salad Recipe

That doesn't distract from the obvious joy I will be having, trying to put some of these recipes together.  Flipping through the pamphlet, it is obvious that mushrooms can be added as a central player to any meal.  Want a soup?  Have cream of mushroom or mushroom-barley soup.

Click for Mushroom-Barley Soup Recipe

Need a dip for your crackers?  A raw mushroom dip might suit you nicely.  Taste them with rice, try them with chicken, savor the flavor of mushroom souffle.

Click for Mushroom Souffle Recipe

The bacon-obsessed hordes of America can take solace in a special recipe for them: bacon-wrapped mushrooms.

Click for Raw Mushroom Dip & Mushroom-Bacon Appetizer Recipes

For all the practice we've put into the art of collecting mushrooms over thousands of years, it only seems right that we would acquire a near infinite number of ways to cook them up.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Just Walking Into a Room: Dominique Pamplemousse

Dominique Pamplemousse in "It's All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings" is a claymation, black-and-white, detective noir, comedy, musical adventure game created by Deirdra Kiai, and it is absolutely charming in every way.

The titular hero is a broke detective trying to solve the case of a missing singer for his producer, and like any good detective story this one is filled with a lot of twists and turns as the case unfolds.  However, the game is advertised by its creator as "a unique and offbeat stop motion animated detective adventure game about gender and the economy. Also, all the characters frequently burst into song."  Kiai never actually mentions the plot of the story...

...which is funny because the plot of the story is not explicitly about gender or the economy at all.  These things are referenced offhandedly over the course of the adventure.  The first time I heard mention of Dominique's ambiguous gender, I rolled my eyes and thought, Oh boy, this is gonna get heavy handed.  But it never became particularly heavy handed, it became more like a constant bother.  Characters might briefly argue about Dominique's gender while Dominique is standing in the room or they might apologize for thinking she is a man when they "realize" he is a woman.  These are problems which a gender neutral person can encounter just walking into a room any day of the week.

That said, gender is not a non-sequitur in the game.  In what I feel to be a very subtle subtext, the game's plot and themes do discuss gender and identity.  I'm just internally debating whether or not it was intentional and don't want to spoil anything about it.  So... you should play the game, and maybe you'll see what I did.  Maybe you won't.  But it was a lot of fun and more than worth the low-low asking price.  If you're leery, try the demo. If you watched the video above and are already in love.  Then go, my friend.  Buy this game and be merry!
You can get it on Windows, Mac, or iPad.  And it ran on my Netbook beautifully, thank god.