Friday, April 28, 2017

Music That's Out of This World

I've blogged before (on several occasions) about a series of concerts performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in which they play an entire film's score live in sync with the film itself. With the kind of career composer John Williams has had, it's not surprising that his work is often the subject of these performances. So it was again last night, when the CSO presented E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial.

Usually, when I go to these symphony screenings, it's for a film I know very well, or have at least watched rather recently. Not so this time. I think this was only the third time I've seen the movie, having caught it as a kid during its original release, and then once later in its 20th anniversary DVD release (with controversial George Lucas style alterations and additions that director Steven Spielberg later removed to restore the original film).

Because it's been around 15 years since I last watched the movie, I wasn't able to pay quite as much attention to the orchestra as I usually do during these performances. I had to devote more focus to the movie itself, particularly during the several long sequences that are entirely driven by the visuals, with little or no dialogue. It's a shame, because these sequences -- like the opening, in which E.T. is left behind by his people -- were always showcases for John Williams and the music I was really there for.

Still, I was able to enjoy the concert. And while I would have said the E.T. score was one I knew very well, I learned a lot in seeing it performed. Williams goes very light on the brass in this score; 9 out of 10 times you're hearing horns, it's french horn and not trumpet or trombone. There's also far more harp in the mix than I'd remembered (or noticed) before. But the star of score, the instrument on which E.T.'s own theme is usually played, is the piccolo -- not its big cousin the flute. It's an instrument that Williams rarely uses in his scores (or at least, rarely uses in a prominent way), and it's perfect for the childlike sense of wonder that permeates this movie.

Despite all those different choices in instrumentation, E.T. actually doesn't come across as one of John Williams most original scores. Released in 1982, the movie came one year after Raiders of the Lost Ark, and two years after The Empire Strikes Back. Both of those films -- especially Raiders -- have their sonic fingerprints all over E.T. If you accelerate the tempo just a bit, the same chord progressions of E.T., the same way the whole orchestra underpins the soloists, could support Indiana Jones' theme. The sinister woodwind theme of the scientists feels like a blend of Boba Fett's theme from Empire and the Nazi theme from Raiders. It's still great music, and works great for the film, but it does feel more strongly connected to John Williams' other work at the time than most of his iconic scores do.

The movie itself might get a review in a later post. But as for this concert experience, I'd grade it a B+... though maybe it only slipped below an A-level grade for my lack of preparedness, and that's on me. This film/concert series continues to be a great part of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's programming (and many of these same films are screened by orchestras around the country). I can't recommend them highly enough to fans of film music.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Thirty-Three Years Ago, in the Future

The word "Orwellian" is thrown about quite a bit these days. In fact, the frequency made me reckon with the fact that I'd never actually read 1984, the George Orwell novel usually being name-checked. I knew many of the catch phrases and the rough shape of the plot, but I decided it was time to actually experience it for myself.

Divided into three sections of roughly equal length, 1984 does not strike me as a primarily narrative-driven affair. It's a rather dry, almost tacked-on romance story sandwiched between two long-form exercises in world building. But there's a reason the book has endured; that world building is incredibly vivid and insightful, and seems to remain frustratingly timeless.

Orwell's book does what lots of great science fiction does -- it dials a real-world scenario up to an extreme as a vehicle for social commentary. Readers with the freedom to decry fascism and totalitarianism are nowhere near the society depicted in 1984. But the genius of Orwell's work is how his amplified extreme still feels somehow plausible. This isn't an impossible world where people are expected to die at age 30, or where apes rose to sentience and displaced humans; you can imagine the many steps that would lead to the world of Big Brother and Ingsoc, and point to things in the real world as the first ones.

The final section of the book is also quite astute, a still-topical examination of torture and how it can break down a victim and make them accept any "truth" the torturer supplies. I knew 1984 had been a touchstone for the great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that examined torture, "Chain of Command, Part II," but I didn't realize just how direct an inspiration Orwell had been there until I read the book. The ending of 1984 is also quite clever, arriving at a natural conclusion while leaving room for the reader to deduce exactly what would happen next if the book when just one page farther.

That meandering romance in the middle section, combined with the fact that the characters aren't drawn nearly as sharply as the world itself, slowed me down a lot in the middle section of the book. That in turn keeps me from heaping full praise on it. Still, among books considered "classics," I felt this one held up far better than most. I'd give 1984 a B+. If you've never read it yourself, now is a great time to add it to your list.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

All the Madame's Men

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode continued using the Framework story arc as real-world social commentary. Dialogue about the numbing drip-drip of propaganda, and the use of a television personality to spread what were literally referred to as "alternative facts" were a not-really-coded way of being topical. (And not the first time the world of the Framework has been used in this way, as a cautionary allegory.)

For long time fans of the show, the episode was also a reference-palooza. Second season right-hand man Bakshi returned to play a fascist pawn/newscaster. The news crawl on the bottom of his show was loaded with mentions of Bill Paxton's Garrett, Reed Diamond's Whitehall, and others my memory probably just wasn't strong enough to pick up. When Coulson told his story about turning down S.H.I.E.L.D. recruitment to teach instead (his apparent "one regret" for his life in the Framework), the speech he recounted, about being "part of something bigger," was Nick Fury's recruitment speech.

But it wasn't all about sly in-jokes and continuity. These Framework episodes continue to explore major drama that should weigh heavily on the characters even after they return to their real world. May holds herself responsible (and plausibly so) for the death of Mace, a fact that tortures her now in the dream world and will no doubt do so in the real world. (After Fitz, she's now the second main character to have killed an actual person inside the Framework.) Her need for atonement will be a powerful motivation in the episodes ahead.

Daisy had a great scene with Ward, coming face-to-face with this other, sweeter side of the man either long-forgotten or never-known in the real world. She spoke of how it forced her to rethink what she knew of Ward, and it sounded legit. (More solid acting from Chloe Bennet, her reaction when Coulson steps into the TV studio and delivers a pithy line; it wordlessly proclaimed, "that's the Coulson I know.")

The stakes of the overall plot were defined and escalated too. Aida is looking to shed her android body, in part so she can shed its moral limitations. Besides the jeopardy this adds for the main characters, it puts into play the possibility that she's actually trying to romance the "romantic" Fitz (and not merely using him as a means to an end). It will be interesting to watch that relationship play out.

Also hinted at was an interesting story arc for Radcliffe. He's always been too self-serving at his core to really mesh with the selfless heroes around him. Now that he knows he's dead in the real world (and unable to redefine the conditions of the Framework), he's finally stepped up and behaved more honorably. But now Fitz has threatened to give him "a reason to live." Presumably the same system that will give Aida a real-world human body can be used to save Radcliffe's life? And with a carrot like that carrot dangled in front of him, will Radcliffe revert to form, or finally and truly embrace his inner hero?

I found this episode a touch less compelling that the rest of the Framework arc so far, but only because of the high bar it has set. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


Castles of Mad Kind Ludwig is a game I'd heard about off and on for some time, but I didn't get the chance to actually play it until my trip last month to Steamboat Springs.

Each of the players is building a palace room by room, earning points as they go. The "madness" of the title is flavorful cover to explain the odd shapes these castles inevitably take. Rooms are of different shapes, sizes, and types. While the shapes and sizes constrain where you can physically place them on the table in front of you, the types govern how they score -- each room prefers to be near rooms of a certain type (or, more often, not near rooms of other types) in order to score best.

The main mechanism of the game is how room tiles are taken by the players in each round. A handful of purchase slots are filled each round with one room each (some leftover from the previous round). The first player then rearranges those rooms as he chooses among the slots, setting different purchase prices for each by his choices. All the other players then select their room for the turn one by one, paying the price-setter the purchase price. The price-setter then chooses last from what remains, paying the money to the bank.

The game is essentially all in the price setting, and the goals you're trying to juggle when you do it. You want to get the most money from your opponents that you can... but you hope they don't actually pass the turn to take money instead, buying nothing. You don't want anyone to get a room too cheaply that fits into their castle too well. You don't want to lose all the money you just took in on a round by then paying it out to the bank to take a room of your own... but if you make the thing you really want too cheap, someone else will probably buy it before you.

It is fun, and the strategic levels run deep. But I think Castles of Mad King Ludwig asks you to keep tabs on a bit too much information. It's hard enough to watch your own castle, to know what rooms you want to pick up and where to place them, and to think about how you'll use the game's various bonuses. (Each room of each type provides a different benefit if you "finish" it by placing something else adjacent to all its doors.) That's all plenty.

But to be good at the game, you basically have to watch all this same stuff for each of the other players too. As I said, the game is really all in the price setting, and you can't do that effectively when the time comes unless you've been watching all your opponents build their castles. Setting the price at the start of the round is by far the most time consuming part of the game, and it's always a process of one player forcing all the others to wait on him as he tries to figure out the best thing to do. If that player tries to be conscientious and speed things up, he inevitably gives a great deal to a rival and winds up wishing he hadn't been so hasty.

I do like the game, and I would play it again. But at the same time, I'm sure I'll never play it enough to get good (fast) at it. I think it's always going to feel to me like more mental effort than the payoff you get. I'd grade it a B. I think there are other advanced Euro games that hit that balance more squarely.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Competitive Endurance Tickling

In documentary film making, it's not uncommon for the director of a movie to start out with one intention only to wind up making an entirely different movie. But rarely is that experience so translated to the viewers in the finished product as with the unusual documentary Tickled.

David Farrier is a television reporter from New Zealand. He's the type of guy that does those "lighter side" segments that usually appear in the final 5 minutes of a TV newscast on a slow day. And he thought he was onto just another story when he stumbled onto the world of "competitive endurance tickling." I'm not sure if that's what you think it sounds like, but if you think it's young, athletic men holding each other down and forcibly tickling each other, then you're on the right track.

Farrier's efforts to research a story on the subject were quickly and strangely rebuffed, as he received a nasty email from Jane O'Brien Media -- the force behind the... uh... "sport?" -- an email insulting him for being bisexual and protesting (too much) about the legitimacy of competitive endurance tickling and the complete lack of anything homoerotic about it. This got Farrier's hackles up, and what started out as one more segment for his TV show suddenly became a deep dive investigative documentary film.

At the risk of spoilers (and also at the risk of stating the obvious), this entire enterprise is far from legitimate. Tickled soon morphs into a film about sexual proclivities, and a criminal endeavor to coerce, blackmail, and dox young men. Along the way, Farrier takes side trips to examine computer hacking, a bizarre family history, and even the legitimate tickle video industry. That the whole thing clocks in at a coherent and complete 92 minutes is a testimony to the reporting and editing of Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve.

HBO picked up the film for broadcast in the states, so if you've got HBO (or are using a friend's account) in anticipation of Game of Thrones, or to watch their current can't miss show, then you can check out Tickled for yourself. I'm not exactly sure who to recommend it for, but it lands pretty squarely in my wheelhouse, at the intersection of true crime, stranger than fiction, and LGBT interest. I'd give it a B+. It left me, well... the title says it all.

Friday, April 21, 2017

From Merchants to Vikings

Stefan Feld may be one of the most consistent and creative board game designers around, but even his games go out of print sooner or later. One example is The Speicherstadt, his cutthroat take on an auction game. A number of cards are put up for bids each round, and the first player to bid on a card gets the first opportunity to buy... but at a cost equal to the total number of bids made on it that round. Good strategy is a blend of bidding on the things you actually want and bidding just to raise prices for your opponents.

I quite enjoyed the game, and with my own copy safely in my collection, I hadn't even really known that it had gone out of circulation. Or at least, I hadn't known until last year, when the game returned to print with a new title and theme. Jórvík has the same gameplay as The Speicherstadt, but it's now a competition between Viking jarls attempting to out-feast, out-pillage, and out-craft each other to the most prestige.

In my mind, the new theme doesn't make a lot of sense. It's possible I feel this way only because I know the original, trade-oriented game theme. Or maybe it's that I'm steeped in the familiar trope of aggressive raiders -- a trope that doesn't make much room for crafty, infrastructure-minded Vikings. That said, I don't know that "traders or Vikings" makes a world of difference. The charm of this game is in its mechanics, and under either name, their connection to any story is quite tenuous and abstract.

But Jórvík is not just a re-skin of The Speicherstadt; it's also a re-skin of that game's expansion, Kaispeicher. I never picked up that expansion, so Jórvík was my first chance to play it. And it turns out that skipping on the expansion was probably a good thing.

I think one of the hardest challenges in board game design is to create a good expansion for a game that wasn't originally meant to have any. A great board game is a precariously balanced affair, and an expansion usually disrupts that tight balance to make room for new elements. So it seems to be with Kaispecher. More than just a new batch of cards to shuffle in and add to the auction, the expansion adds a different way of auctioning cards. Half the cards are bid on in the classic manner, while the other half are sold using what might have been an alternate universe version of the game's core mechanic.

The result seems to pit the "starboard rowers" in a completely different rhythm than the "port rowers" (to seize on the Viking flavor), giving you an unpleasant strategic whiplash as you flip between the two. The expansion also unnecessarily adds 3 more types of goods to the core game's 5, and makes the new ones confusingly more rare and valuable than the old ones. It's still more design that feels less like an expansion and more like a second game grafted onto the original.

As a result, my experience with Jórvík left me cold -- even though I quite like The Speicherstadt. If this is now the only way to pick up and play the classic game, I suppose it's better than nothing. But I personally would always choose to play without the built-in expansion. Jórvík is not a "value-added" proposition in my book. I'd give it a C.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

No Regrets

The "Agents of HYDRA" arc of Agents of SHIELD continues to pay off big, with another great episode this week.

Aida/Madama Hydra/Ophelia explicitly reminded us all that this reality is built by changing one regret in the lives of each of the Framework's subjects. You could well have assumed already that Mace's regret was that he wasn't actually an Inhuman -- he'd talked about that when his secret was revealed weeks ago. But this week showed him explicitly super-powered, and used his story arc to hammer on the big point of the episode: what happens in the Framework matters. Mace was so committed to this idea that he died for it, but in doing so proved his very point. By risking his life to save a child's in front of May, he provided the push she needed to break from Hydra's fascist sway and start working with Daisy.

We learned that for Fitz, his regret appeared to be some variation of wishing for a better relationship with his father, a fitting revelation on multiple levels. Way back in season one, we learned that Fitz's father skipped out when he was a kid; more recently, his disappointment with how things had turned out with Radcliffe must have put the need for a father figure more at the forefront of his thinking.

That wasn't the only season one connection being made this week, as we got the surprise return of Triplett to the mix. He was the first significant character introduced beyond the original core cast, and having him show up now does make me wonder if we have any shot at a return from Bobbi Morse and Hunter before we're through. Are they playing out "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Greatest Hits" one last time, or was this more of a one-time opportunity they seized upon?

In any case, I continue to be enthralled by this final story arc of the season. For serving up a meaningful (if inevitable) character death and other great moments, the episode earns another A-.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

11:00 PM - 12:00 PM

24: Legacy wound to a close this week. Whether it served up a season finale or a series finale remains to be seen, but as with the week before, the quality actually was a bit higher than it was in the silly depths of the middle of the season.

But I'm already in snark mode, so I have to note:

That pantry the little girl is hiding in must be bulletproof.

You don't install glass doors and not go crashing through them during a fight.

Naseri never changed his phone number in more than a year as an operating terrorist?

And now, Arbor Talk with your host, Ara Naseri.

Did Mullins stash that guy he choked out somewhere safe before he headed out on this little helicopter jaunt?

When there's just half an hour left in the season, the avenues of trust between the heroes and the villains suddenly open wide.

Among the perks of being a U.S. Senator: after holding someone hostage inside the Pentagon for an hour-and-a-half, you can just walk out unchallenged.

Rebecca took a bullet for Eric so that he could have a season two. Extra bummer for her if there's no season two.

According to the latest polls, Rebecca's new nickname is "Nine Point Spike."

Nicole wants "no more secrets" between her and Eric. Presumably, the "national security" type secrets will be okay, though.

Sure. Eric is going into room 420 for a "debrief."

...And we'll find out if he ever comes out when FOX announces their renewals in a few weeks. Frankly, if the writers can't serve up a consistently entertaining half season of 24, I'm fine if that renewal doesn't come.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Stone Cold

A few years back, I wrote of Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden and his whistle-blowing on NSA surveillance. I was underwhelmed by the film, finding it to be bloated in some areas and sparse in others. Now I'm underwhelmed all over again by the dramatized take on the same subject, Oliver Stone's biopic Snowden.

Citizenfour's focus on Edward Snowden is largely about what he did. Snowden shifts the focus more to understanding the man who did it. The action hops back and forth in time, in roughly a ten year period leading up to his leak to the press. It's a calculated attempt to grant anyone, regardless of political leanings, permission to like him. The younger Snowden wants, more than anything, to be a flag-waving military man, and is forced to find another way to serve. He starts as a staunch conservative, hardly changed even by his liberal girlfriend Lindsay. If a guy like that stands up to say his government is doing wrong, the movie seems to be saying, you can believe it and agree with it.

But this feels like a lot of pandering to an audience I can't imagine is there. If you're the sort of person predisposed against Edward Snowden, I can't imagine you'd be watching a movie about him -- especially not one directed and co-written by a noted hippie conspiracy peddler like Oliver Stone. I suppose there's some pure narrative value here in emphasizing the protagonist's big journey of change, but there's less value in how repetitive the dramatization becomes. The movie doesn't so much depict a slow disillusionment of Edward Snowden as it just repeats the attempt to open his eyes again and again until, for some reason, it finally works.

Oliver Stone attracts a star-studded cast, as always. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the title character, is really the only one given anything significant to do. The non-chronological structure of the story could have let the reporters working with Snowden be more intriguing characters in their own right, but the most interesting thing about them is that they're played by Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson. Rhys Ifans and Timothy Olyphant play men in Snowden's past who might be most pivotal in shaping his world view... but the distracting cameo of Nicolas Cage gives them an almost subservient weight. Shailene Woodley does what she can with girlfriend Lindsay, but it's a thinly written part.

I think, surprisingly, that this movie does do a slightly better job than the documentary at outlining what the NSA was doing that drove the real-life Snowden to act. But I think both films fall short of telling the story in as compelling a way as it deserves. I give Snowden a C+. Understanding what Edward Snowden did feels to me like essential knowledge. But this isn't the best way to get it.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bottle Recap

I've finished regaling (or boring) you with tales of skiing in Steamboat Springs, but most of my time on the trip wasn't actually spent on the mountain. Board gaming was also a big part of the trip, and I got to try several new things. Peppered in with other posts over the next few weeks, I'll write about some of the new things I tried. (Well, new to me, anyway.)

Bottle Imp is card game inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's short story of the same title. The tale revolves around a cursed bottle. The imp inside will grant your every wish, but if you should die with the bottle in your possession, your soul is damned to Hell. The biggest catch of the curse: you cannot give the bottle away. The owner must sell it, and for less than the price for which they purchased it, making it ever more difficult to offload.

The card game is quite the oddity. It's a trick-taking game, which should be quite familiar. But the rules are a major departure from the norm, which in turn has a major impact on the strategy.

The "19" is removed from a custom deck of cards containing one of each number from 1 to 37. That 19 sets the starting "price" of the bottle. The remaining deck, containing three suits that are distributed in an irregular pattern across the spread of numbers, is shuffled and dealt fully to the players. Players pass one card to each of their neighbors, and also dump one card into "the bottle's trick." Play then begins.

As in most trick-taking games, you must follow the suit that is led. The card that takes the trick, however, has nothing to do with suit at all. The highest number played, regardless of suit, wins the trick... unless one or more cards is played valued less than the bottle's current price. In that case, the highest valued card under the bottle's price takes the trick, and that card also becomes the new price of the bottle.

The bottle itself is a hot potato you don't want to be stuck with at the end of a round. Everyone else counts points for the cards they've taken (in the form of gold coins also printed on the faces of the cards). The person stuck with the bottle instead loses points -- the number of coins found in the "bottle's trick" that was created at the start of the round. You play as many hands as it takes to reach an agreed upon winning score.

Some of the strategy here will feel familiar to fans of Hearts, Spades, or other trick-taking standards. You can try to force people to play bad cards by making them follow the suit you lead. You can attempt to rid your hand of a suit during the passing at the start of each hand, if you're willing to risk having the same suit passed back to you.

But a lot of the strategy is hard to wrap your mind around if you're used to any of those games I mentioned. There's no actual trump suit in play here. You may think you're used to having your high-valued card lose a trick (to a trump, traditionally), but it takes a while to wrap your head around that winning card being "closest to the bottle's price without going over." You may think that low-valued cards spell doom, but if you can dump one off on a trick where someone else has played a card closer to the bottle's price, you'll be doing fine.

I rather enjoyed Bottle Imp when I played it, but it seemed equally frustrating for some of the other players. It is wacky, that's for sure. It's both intriguing and potentially quite off-putting that the game seems so familiar on the surface, yet is revealed to be so unfamiliar when you actually play it. The twist here on trick-taking card games is either a selling point or a turnoff. It's possible you don't exactly need a game like this when you could just play something with a standard deck of playing cards. Yet I do think the game's designer has provided a custom experience to justify the custom deck. (And, from what it seems to me, has captured the short story inspiration fairly well.)

I'd give Bottle Imp a B. If you're a fan of card games, particularly ones you could play over drinks and conversation, you might want to check it out.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Closing Down the Season

Ski Day #3 had been great, but because in the last hour or so I'd fallen into exhaustion (and just plain fallen -- a bunch), I pushed for us to go out just one last time the next day. It would be a short day, I said. Just a couple of hours for me to end things on a high note, and we'd be done with the slopes around lunch.

It ended up being our second longest day of the trip.

We started with a couple of familiar trails, then decided to cross over to the west side of the mountain and try my first black run (officially marked as such). It was a really short one, a little pass from one wide trail to another, but I could cross it off and say I'd done it. And mostly, I did. It was a series of tightly packed moguls, but not too steep. I fell near the end of it and struggled to get back on track, but my husband offered some encouragement: "Just get through this last little bit, and it's just easy blues from here."

He was being absolutely sincere, but he was also completely wrong. We'd either missed a turn, or hadn't quite known where we were to start with or something, but we emerged staring down a steep descent. Later, I'd find out this was Cyclone, another black trail. Still, I was game to try it. Sure, I didn't really have a choice, but this was really wide, mogul-free, groomed, and with no one else actually on it. I'd use every inch of the trail curving back and forth, but I'd get down eventually. And with only a couple of short falls I was able to bounce back from, I did.

That felt like accomplishment enough for the day, and I started to think it was time to pack it in. But as we worked our way through the series of trails and lifts that would eventually get us back to the central gondola, we came upon the rest of our friends who'd been out doing their own thing. (Steamboat's handy iPhone app actually helped us figure out they were in our area.)

So then the stop for lunch that might have ended the day turned out only to be an intermission. We went back out with the part of the rest of the group for a handful more runs. Feeling a bit tired and knowing what that had led to for me the day before, I lagged well behind the fearless kids who often sped out ahead, but I let all the experienced skiers watch and keep up with them. There was one funny (and slightly embarrassing) moment where I wound up unintentionally backwards right as we were passing a professional photographer positioned on the trail, but otherwise the afternoon went well enough.

And that was it for the skiing this trip (and, I think, this season). I'm already looking forward to next year, and hoping my abilities don't regress too far over the summer. Maybe it'll be like riding a bicycle.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It Finally Comes Together

I last left my Steamboat Springs trip with just a few more skiing stories to recount. I'm picking up at the third day on the mountain, where my husband and I planned to be there first thing and ski, just the two of us, until we'd had our fill.

We really did ski a ton this day -- 16.8 miles total, according to the app that was tracking us. We started up in the "Wally World" section of the resort, but even then we were taking new trails over old ones. We went to the "Morningside" (back) of the mountain a couple of times, though it turned out the snow wasn't as good back there. When we returned to the front, we tried harder blue trails toward the west side of the mountain that pushed me and helped cement my slowly improving skills.

I learned that my rating of the trails often didn't line up with the resort's. Frying Pan was a short run than you could see was riddled with moguls. But it was marked blue, so it seemed like a way to maybe learn some new skills. I struggled all the way down, falling a couple of times -- though my husband said at the bottom (perhaps just to make me feel better) that it had felt more like a black run to him. Then there was Two O'Clock, a "blue/black" trail I took hoping to take another step forward. It turned out to be much easier than several of the pure blue runs we'd done that day.

I also learned that when I get tired while skiing, I unravel quite quickly and thoroughly. When we reached the point where we knew it was time to call it a day, we were still a couple of lifts and trails from being able to get back to main path down. Yet even though I'd done fine on similar trails all day (and in one or two cases, the exact same trails), I was falling, tiring myself more to get up, falling more from being tired... a vicious cycle that made the last hour or so of skiing a bit of a rough ride. When we finally did get back to the center of the mountain, exhaustion (and poor snow conditions on the lower half of the trails) pushed us to ride the gondola down to end the day.

Still, this was overall the confidence-building day I'd been hoping for. It was the first day I was willing to just sort of go wherever and not plan obsessively in advance what paths would be easy enough for me to get back out. I got a wide range of challenges and a wider range of scenery. Finally, I felt like I could say "I can ski" without having to tack on "badly" or "barely" or some such. And it was a blast.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Identity and Change

Last night's jam-packed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode carried the momentum of this season's final story arc in fine fashion. The benched characters from last week were brought into the mix, and everybody was put through the wringer.

Despite the darkness of the overall story, the episode found many moments of goofy fun, mostly thanks to casting Coulson as a doe-eyed S.H.I.E.L.D. fanboy. From geeking out over the Patriot to sharing his soap conspiracy, every scene with him made me smile. Coulson is often quite witty in the "real world," but this is another gear to his humor, and Clark Gregg seems to be having a blast playing it.

He's not the only one playing against type in this arc. Brett Dalton finally gets to play Ward as the good guy, as he's only done for the first half of season one. Iain De Caestecker has the other side of that coin, playing Fitz as enthralled villain. Even the less dramatic character shifts, such as Ming-Na Wen's more arch take on May, show subtle and interesting differences.

In those last two characters in particular, Fitz and May, the writers are setting up for great material when everyone eventually gets out of the Framework. Because presumably, they aren't just going to trade their new memories for their old ones; they'll remember everything they did, and "I was brainwashed" will provide only the slightest emotional cover.

Fitz (and Simmons) are going to have to reckon with the fact that he actually murdered someone in cold blood -- and not a mere simulacrum, but an actual human consciousness living in the Framework. May ought to be more conflicted that ever. So much of her identity is built around doing "what has to be done," and while she got validation of that in seeing a reality where her failure to act in Bahrain led to the rise of HYDRA, she also has gone on to commit evil acts in the name of "doing her job." How she'll ever be able to reconcile that should be fuel for a deep character arc.

I'm also impressed at how the episode slid some social commentary in the mix. Mack's story was full of scenes about the abuse of police power and the need to keep your head down and not make trouble as a person of color of America. It was hard not to see the (not-so?)-coded solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Yes, the fascism dial was turned up all the way in this fictitious world, but it wouldn't take many changes to his scenes for them to play believably in the real world -- ours, not his.

Plus, you got callbacks to Patton Oswalt's Agent Koenig and Mack's favorite cheesy movie, and a full-throated "I'm not your puppet anymore" speech from Aida that was everything you'd long expected it would be.

I was thinking this felt like a B+ episode, if only because I didn't quite love it as much as last week's. But thinking and writing through it, I've talked myself up a notch -- I'd call this another A- effort from the series.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

10:00 PM - 11:00 PM

To be fair, last night's episode of 24: Legacy was actually a good deal more entertaining (and of noticeably higher quality) than anything the series has served up in weeks. I suspect it's a combination of the writers now rushing to a known ending and the jettisoning of long-played-out subplots (Nicole and Isaac, Daddy Donovan). Still, I'd already resolved to switch over to quip mode in "reviewing" the show, so...

What does Stiles mean, "what does she mean Bin-Khalid is alive?"? Seems pretty unambiguous.

Remote erasing looks so camera friendly.

CTU has a new Peng in the ass.

Before they zipped up Jadalla's body bag, did they make sure he's dead? Because these days, you apparently never know.

Carter thinks there's still time to save Rebecca. Yeah, about an hour and 50 minutes.

Why are the terrorists always talking to each other in English?

John says Rebecca's work is in her blood. Which is now all over the floor of the terrorists' van.

Carter knows the thigh-shooting threat is the go-to play on 24.

Lots of quick and dirty Photoshop work in the photos of Naseri's daughter.

Everybody knows how much time it takes to mask your trail by spreading bandwidth through multiple sockets.

This rural farmhouse is surprisingly close to the Pentagon.

Closer even than DC SWAT, in fact.

Andy didn't see Tony's strike team coming because he was too zoomed in. That's what too much "enhance" will get you.

Tony sure spends a long time hanging outside the house waiting for the end of the episode to come around.

So, next week is the finale. In which presumably will see a calm and rational hostage trade after which everyone will go home happy. Or possibly instead, a hail of gunfire. Only way to know is to tune in and see this thing through.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What If...

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned last week to begin its third and final story arc of the season: the Framework, aka "Agents of HYDRA." Based on this first episode, it could turn out to be their best material of the season.

First, despite the fact that I've sometimes wished the show wasn't so much the "Daisy Johnson Hour," I'm drawn in by who it is that has to save the day this time. Not just Daisy, but Simmons too, with the whole team counting on them. Big time girl power here -- and not of the usual May-kicks-ass variety. Plus, Daisy is without her Inhuman abilities, almost reset to season one status in the show.

Also reset to season one status (somewhat), we have Grant Ward back on the show. And while I felt Ward wore out his welcome long before they began the Hive arc, this feels like a good way to put the character back in the mix without straining credulity.

If you're a fan of genre television, then you know what a fruitful story line the "parallel universe" can turn out to be. Everything from Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Stargate (and everything in between) has found memorable episodes in mirror realities, alternate timelines, dream dimensions, and the like. It often leads to some of the best episodes of a series, as writers, actors, and everyone else involved with a show gets to cut loose and change things up.

Here, the premise is a tantalizing one. As Aida explained to us before the break, the world of the framework represents reality as it would be if each of the subjects trapped in it had just one regret changed about their lives. From just half a dozen butterflies flapping their wings, we have this HYDRA dominated, fascist regime. We've already learned that the one change where May was concerned was not taking the life of that little girl in Bahrain. Here's hoping for more fun revelations in the one change made for each of the other characters (or, at least, Aida's interpretation of how to address their regrets).

We got no Mack, Director Mace, or Radcliffe this episode. Not only did the absence of these characters help in establishing the "back to season one" vibe of the episode, it means that on top of the stage already intriguingly set, there are more revelations in store when those characters are brought into the mix. I for one am eager to see where it goes.

I give this episode an A-. You've got the hook set in me, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now reel me in.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Short But Sweet

When "Ski Day #2" in Steamboat Springs rolled around, the weather forecast had been accurate... mostly. It was snowing, but it was more of a stinging sleet, on the edge of freezing. Unsurprisingly, that led to it being our shortest day on the mountain during the whole trip. Still, short also turned out to be sweet on this occasion.

We decided to stick with our friends and their kids this day. The kids were looking for the same "step up" to blues that I was, and I figured that practice around other people would be good for me. (True or not, I'd convinced myself that most of the falls I was taking were when other people skied too close to me and I overreacted.)

We went back to the same Tomahawk run I'd tried two days earlier, only this time you could actually see it. The snow/sleet cut down on visibility a bit, but it was nothing compared to the gothic fog that had been draped over everything 48 hours earlier. On this day, everyone else seemed to be taking the falls that had been meant for me. I slowly built confidence as I stayed upright through a few runs, and got further reassurance by seeing some of the veterans fall occasionally, as they paid more attention to the kids than to what they were doing.

My husband gave me another landmark tip to rival last year's "wide stance to snow plow" advice: I wasn't bending my knees nearly enough. I would revert to bad form from time to time, but that one tip was enough to get me gliding more easily through my turns.

When the kids tired out early and decided to ride the gondola back down the mountain, we opted for one last run to the bottom: a trail called Heavenly Daze. Just two days earlier, I would have never gone for it. For one, it was as steep or steeper than a Copper Mountain blue run that just a month earlier had beaten me up, taken my lunch money, and left me embarrassed. Worse, the trail starts off running right under the gondola for a good stretch -- and skiing for a perceived "audience" overhead (whether they're actually watching you or not) is a special source of anxiety for new skiers. (Well, me and one or two others I've compared notes with, anyway.)

By the end of the day, I was placing unreasonable value on having a "no falls" day more than on having a "push myself and improve"day. But I got lucky and had both. Even the ski-grabbing slush toward the end of the run didn't get the best of me, and I finished out the day with a sense of accomplishment.

The next day, we decided, my husband and I would strike out on our own -- ski all day until we'd had our fill, and really try to lock in my progress.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Animal Rescue

Between "ski day 1" and "ski day 2" of my Steamboat Springs trip, we decided to take a day away from the slopes. We had plenty of board games to pass the time, but we also planned one other particular activity.

For more than a year now, my friends and I have been saying how much we'd really like to try an "escape room." Always, the talk was about how we needed enough people to book a room to ourselves (so we wouldn't be sharing it with strangers), and that in turn meant coordinating a lot of schedules. So the cycle repeated again and again, every few months: "We should really do an escape room." "Yes, we should! Who's in?" "Should we just pick a date?" "Well, maybe once we know who wants to go." "Say, did we forget about doing that escape room thing?"

Finally, serendipity stepped in. We'd made plans to hit all the Steamboat Springs craft breweries while we were in town, and the one we picked first just so happened to be right next door to an escape room. We took this information back to the whole group and made our plans.

Five of us in total went to the Crooked Key, a place with two differently themed rooms. The story of one appealed to us more than the other -- and also happened to be the more difficult of the two. We were all firefighters starting off in our station. We had to prepare to go out on a call (escape the fire station), then go inside a "burning" house to rescue the eight animals hidden inside.

This. Was. A. Total. Blast.

There were satisfying puzzles that made you think in a wide variety of ways. Everyone in our group had at least one key moment where he or she figured out a major element that propelled the escape effort forward. The layout of the overall puzzle was smart, bringing us together in moments to focus on a single thing, and splitting us up at other times to work small tasks solo or in pairs.

We'd been given two walkie talkies to call in for a "hack" if we wanted one -- a way to bypass a puzzle we'd become stuck on, in order to keep going. After some brief talk early on about calling in, I'd actually forgotten the walkie talkies were there... until, as I felt the end coming up, the voice on the other end of the line called us. "You're two minutes from the record time," he told us. And indeed, I was right about the end being near, because 20 seconds later, we'd solved the final puzzle, opened the final door, and found a flashing camera on the other side:

The record was ours, which sweetened the victory. But I would have gushed about the experience regardless. We hadn't even left Crooked Key before we were talking about how we had to do more of these when we returned to Denver, getting our friends who hadn't traveled with us to Steamboat Springs in on the action. Indeed, if we'd started on the easier of Crooked Key's two rooms, I have no doubt we would have gone back on that same trip to try the other.

A dash of live action role-playing, a lot of teamwork, a game's sensibilities, and a pile of puzzles. What's not to like? I can't recommend the escape room experience highly enough (and the Crooked Key in particular, should you find yourself in Steamboat Springs).

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Sky Skiing

My recent trip to Steamboat Springs was, if you want to make it official, my "2nd Annual" trip. The first one, in 2016, was where I first learned to ski. It was not what you would call an easy process. Nor was I able to pick up this winter where I left off. I've been up to Copper Mountain a few times this ski season, and each of those trips marked the most marginal of improvements. I went from practically starting over again to cautiously skiing easy green runs to unraveling completely on my first attempt at a blue run.

That brings me to Steamboat 2017, where I resolved to truly get better. And I hoped that was doable, since I'd be able to go skiing multiple times in a one week, rather than just once every few weeks. Unfortunately, Steamboat Springs itself wasn't at its most helpful in this regard. It seems to have received far less snow this year than other resorts; that, and/or most of that snow was already melted by unseasonably warm days. On the bottom half of the mountain, some trails were already closed and the rest were a hard-to-handle slush.

I started day one on those lower mountain trails all the same. But it wasn't just the conditions making those a hard place for me to improve, it was the runs themselves. Steamboat just doesn't have many green options for wide runs with gentle slopes to practice parallel skiing and controlled S turns. No, most of the greens at Steamboat are quite narrow, and virtually flat. If you practice using turns to slow down, you slow down too much to keep going at all. This was probably ideal for me a year ago, when just staying upright was my main concern. When trying to improve my technique this year, it was no help at all.

So after a couple of runs skiing with most of the gang we'd come with, my husband and I decided to head higher up the mountain. For those of you in the know about Steamboat Springs, we headed to the area nicknamed "Wally World" -- though it's not marked as such on any map. It's a network of blue runs (many on the easier side) on the upper east part of the resort. This would be the place, I was convinced, where I'd make some progress.

Except that as we were riding the lift up to get there, we encountered another obstacle: fog. Or low-hanging clouds. It was all pretty much the same, in that you could not see anything. At about 25 feet out, everything was an indistinguishable black smudge. At 50 feet out, it vanished entirely. On the lift, we couldn't see the chair two spots in front of us, while the chairs coming at us on the opposite side appeared all of a sudden, creepily and empty, as though out of some horror film.

We reached the top of the mountain, and began what would be our last run of the day. And until we came down out of the clouds, it felt to me like too much of a white knuckle thrill ride to learn much. The trail was wide, which would have been great, but that also meant that you couldn't really see where the boundaries of it were. All you could do was go slowly -- very slowly -- and occasionally follow the path of someone who passed you with clear knowledge of where they were going (only to lose them as they sped ahead).

The picture at the top of this post comes from our time lost in the clouds. We did eventually come out of them... and promptly called it a day. With a forecast for a little snow two days later, we planned for a day of gaming in the meantime, with a return to the mountain after that.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

8:00 PM - 9:00 PM and 9:00 PM - 10:00 PM

24: Legacy aired last week while I was out of town, so last night was a double header of action and complete insanity. It all sort of blurred together, so here are some scattered thoughts on both episodes.

Everyone in this season of 24 has either been coerced into being a mole, been held prisoner by terrorists, or has returned from the dead. Sometimes more than one of those.

Things took on a bit of a soap opera vibe as the writers leaned in big time to the Eric-Nicole-Isaac love triangle, continued to harp on the jealousy of Tony's assistant (about Rebecca), wedged and then de-wedged the relationship between Rebecca and John, and brought Jadalla's father back from the dead for a heart-to-heart.

Rather than give than give something interesting to Stiles or Director Mullins, who've been living scenery basically all season, the writers invented some schlubby, two-timing security guard to be pressured into helping the break-in at CTU.

Eric decides that 20 minutes is just too long to wait for a professional to come defuse a bomb... and then proceeds to wait 20 minutes before beginning to defuse the bomb. And takes another 20 minutes doing it. I know nothing on the subject, of course, but we see how long it takes him to "cut the first wire." At that pace, he must go on to cut like 47 more wires off screen before the bomb is disarmed.

Tony Almeida has two weeks left to do something interesting, or his whole return this season will amount to a big nothing burger.

Eric is sitting in the basement of the house at the end of one episode, and waltzes into CTU three minutes into the next episode. Maybe the chopper that must have brought him should be out looking for Naseri?

The moment Senator Donovan is abducted, they should be monitoring Rebecca's movements. You know, just in case the terrorists try to contact her and make her act against.... oh, see, there you go.

Not only did someone say perimeter, we got to actually see one. That's like two drinks at least. We also got to see why they've been so ineffective in the past, as the terrorists have little hassle blasting their way through it.

Daddy Donovan is awfully quick to believe without evidence that his son has been abducted, and then he just spills everything to Rebecca. Apparently, this is the interrogation technique they should have tried on him a few hours ago.

Why is Isaac, a known criminal, allowed anywhere inside the CTU building? Especially after it was just the target of a raid by terrorists?

How is that bandage on the outside of Andy's pants doing anything for his wound?

Just two more hours until this insanity wraps up.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Hot Take

You may have noticed the blog has been in prolonged hibernation for the past week and change. I've been in Steamboat Springs on vacation, filling my days with skiing, board games, and beer -- a fun and relaxing time.

Those with a very good memory may remember that I went to Steamboat Springs about the same time last year. One of the side activities then was a trip to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Most of the same friends were on this year's trip, but not all of them had made it to to the hot springs last year. We decided to cross that off the list early this time. And since last year, we'd stumbled around in the dark not able to actually see the place, we decided to go during the day.
It turns out that not being able to see anything was probably for the best; the imagination filled in a better experience perhaps than Strawberry Park Hot Springs actually offers. When they say there are six different pools there of varying temperatures, that claim should really come with an asterisk. There are really more like three, with the tiniest walled-off sections nearby (that would hold no more than two or three people at a time) counting for the rest. Indeed, the place felt like little more than a stinky hot tub you had to share with many times the normal number of people.

The hot springs weren't a total loss. We did get to find everything we'd missed before, and did get in a nice muscle-relaxing soak. (Though since this happened before any ski days, we didn't really need it as badly.) But the main takeaway was an appreciation for the hot tub right there in the condo where we were staying. Much closer, much less crowded, and at no extra charge. That was how we'd wrap up every ski day for the rest of the trip.

So let me revise my earlier recommendation of Strawberry Park Hot Springs. If you find yourself in Steamboat and want to check it out, go at night. Pick a cloud-free night where you can gaze up at the stars, or a gently snowing night where you can enjoy the extremes between the warm water and the air outside. Don't go for the scenery; Colorado offers up enough amazing scenery around every turn.