Sunday, November 30, 2014

Blogroll Update

It's a lazy housekeeping post today, friends! But it's sort of an important one.

I've updated the blogroll on my sidebar. Not much has changed, but I'd like to point some of them out.
  • A Random Stranger is a blog from one of my friends. He recently moved to China to teach, and he's been writing about those experiences a lot lately (among other things--there's a treasure trove of previous posts about all sorts of things.)
  • A local author and friend, Jeff Boarts, has written a series of mystery novels set in the Kittanning/Pittsburgh area. I highly recommend them, especially if you are into the mystery genre. I've posted both his blog and where you can purchase the books.
  • Ya Jagoff! is another Pittsburgh-based blog that ostensibly calls out city residents who are behaving badly, but his posts are about much more than just yinzer-shaming. Of particular note is his current campaign to have "jagoff" added to Webster's Dictionary. (If for some unknowable reason you don't know what a Jagoff is...well, just click and find out.) 
  • Vito Delsante, another local who is now a comic book writer in New York, has a pretty robust online presence. His new project, Stray, is available now.
Also make sure you check out the other links. I'm slowly going to add more once I get everything together, so keep an eye on it.

Another note about this blog: I've wanted to mention this for a while, but I've never got around to it. As a general rule, I try not to alter posts once I've hit enter, but invariably there are minor punctuation or grammatical errors that slip through. (Also, about 10% of the time I forget to title the post. Whoops.) If it's a minor correction and it doesn't impact the post, I don't mention it; I just fix it. If it's a more substantial edit that actually adds or changes content, I try and make a note of it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

In Requiem: Congressman Henry Allen Cooper of Wisconsin

I was doing what I normally do on a Saturday night, which is argue with people on Reddit. In one of my lively discussions I came across a table that listed the longest-tenured politicians in America. At the very bottom of this list is the sad tale of one Henry Allen Cooper, representative from Wisconsin starting in 1893:

"Defeated & Died." That's his legacy, after 36 years of service. Some jerk probably engraved that on his headstone.

Actually, it's not that bad. He's listed as such because he was defeated in 1918 for voting against going to war against Germany in World War I, but was then re-elected after his constituents got over their snit, where he thereupon died ten long years later. So it's not like what I first thought, where in 1918 a messenger knocked on his door, told him he lost the election, and poor Mr. Allen Cooper immediately keeled over and died and then someone updated his Wikipedia article.

Hot trivia about Henry Allen Cooper: He was the chairman of the Committee of Rivers and Harbors for an entire two-year term and authored the act that set up the Philippines as an American colony. You know full well he was just swimming in it when be went back home to Racine.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: From Please Pass The Guilt to Death Times Three

This is the tenth, and final, installment of the Nero Wolfe Project.

This time, we're going to be looking at Please Pass The Guilt, Death Times Three, and A Family Affair.

In Please Pass The Guilt, a doctor consults with Wolfe--one of his patients is having a recurring episode where he has blood on his hands. Reluctantly, Wolfe speaks with him, only for the patient to not give him any useful information and is summarily told to leave--but not before getting him to give up his name. Through this, they eventually find out that he was involved with a company that recently had a bombing; a candidate to be president of a company walked into the room of another candidate, opened the bottom desk drawer--which was known to hold the owner's whiskey from which he faithfully drank every day--and was instantly killed. Archie and Wolfe then net a fee from the victim's widow--the person who opened the drawer had a vial of LSD, and presumbaly was opening the drawer to lace his drink. The widow hires Wolfe to solve the murder without that fact getting disclosed. One of the better mysteries, and also a surprisingly candid book--a mildly graphic discussion about language (which seemingly does not advance the plot) is present, odd given that the series up to this point has eschewed things like that. Also notable is that the Wolfe universe has been brought, kicking and screaming, into "modern" times, with mentions of LSD, hippies, feminism, language, and the sexual revolution.

I'm cheating a little, here; we're going to skip to Death Times Three. This was published posthumously, and includes Bitter End, Frame-Up For Murder, and Assault On A Brownstone. Bitter End is a reworking by Rex Stout another non-Wolfe story, but it's certainly worth reading. It's one of the better short stories: it involves someone spiking canned goods with quinine, and Wolfe commits to uncovering the murder of the owner of the company out of pique. Frame-Up For Murder is simply a reworking of Murder Is No Joke (from And Four To Go); it's slightly expanded, but it's really not worth reading if you've already read the original. Assault On A Brownstone is a variation of Counterfeit For Murder (from Homicide Trinity); the first few pages follow the original story, but then takes a completely different turn. It's worth reading just to see the different possibilities from the same characters and settings. Because two of the three stories are variations on a previous story that was probably closer to what Stout intended, you can safely skip this book; only get it if you're a completest (or really want to rad Bitter End).

A Family Affair is the final Nero Wolfe book written by Rex Stout. When a waiter at Rustermann's restaraunt comes to Wolfe's office after midnight, demanding to speak to Wolfe, Archie demurs. The waiter, clearly agitated, mentioned that someone is trying to kill him; as a compromise, Archie allows him to sleep in the South Room until Wolfe has been advised and is awake in the morning. Not long after, an explosion goes off; Archie enters to find that the waiter is dead, killed by a bomb. Thus sets off a series of clues, linking the waiter to an electronics magnate who had died the previous week, and eventually another client. Sadly, I can't get into too many more details, because the major thrust of this book builds up to an alarming and depressing twist. This book was written during the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in 1974; it's a major plot point that it's suspected that one of the victims was somehow directly or indirectly involved in the scandal. It's hard to rate this one, since Stout was clearly writing it from a place of sadness and frustration, and he wrote it in his late 80s and had to know it was probably going to be his last book, or close to it. It does end with a certain level of finality, but not with a whole lot of closure; in fact, it's utterly depressing. In some ways it is quite a fitting end, but in others one has to wonder how optimistic it could have ended instead.

And that's it. Through 33 novels and 39 short stories, we've lived through Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin, Inspector Cramer, Fritz Brenner, and a multitude of other characters. For now, I'm skipping the continuation of the Wolfe line by Robert Goldsborough--by all accounts they're solid, if not excellent, novels, and some day I'll read them and maybe even review them. But for now, I'm done. I'll write up a more in-depth look at the series overall in a later post.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Snack Review: Weird Pringles Potato Crisps Flavors

Some things should never happen. I know the trend lately is for potato chips to come out with strange, unique flavors (I'm looking at you, Lay's Cappuccino Flavored Potato Chips). I'm also never opposed to that in principle, because I've tasted some very awesome things that otherwise sounded disgusting.

That said, let's take a look at some new Pringles flavors: Milk Chocolate, Pecan Pie, and Cinnamon Sugar.

Pecan Pie: I don't care for pecan pie, so my expectations were low on this one. I was pleasantly surprised. The flavor is strong, but not overwhelmingly strong, and it does taste a lot like pecan pie. Unfortunately--since I don't like pecan pie--it didn't do much for me, but if you're the sort of person who likes to have a bowl of glazed sugar crammed full of stupid nuts then have at it. It's really good at what it does, I just don't like what it does.

As much as Pecan Pie tastes like pecan pie, Milk Chocolate tastes nothing like milk chocolate. It almost tastes like a slightly sweet Pringle. It doesn't taste much like milk chocolate at all. At best, it's a slight aftertaste, but in either case I can't really recommend it for either chocolate lovers or Pringles lovers.

I will admit that I cheated a bit. There was another flavor, White Chocolate, and I passed it over in favor of Cinnamon Sugar. I knew full well I was going to have White Chocolate, and in retrospect I'm sure it's not much different that the Milk Chocolate. Cinnamon Sugar is OK; they're tortilla chips, not potato chips, so it's a little different. They're not particularly strong, and this is the one flavor where it can afford to be a little strong. SO while they aren't bad there are other snacks out there that do cinnamon sugar a lot better.

Sadly, I can't recommend any of these. Pecan Pie would probably be a decent choice for anyone who loves pecan pie, but I would pass on the other two.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beverage Review: Weird Carbonated Drink Edition

While finding new and odd flavors of candy aren't all that uncommon anymore, finding strange drinks is a little more...interesting. Below, I'm going to review three drink flavors that are out of the ordinary: Coconut Wave, Moxie, and (wait for it) Chocolate-Covered Maple Smoked Bacon.

Moxie: Moxie is a famously old-fashioned drink associated primarily with New England and Maine in particular. The name--Moxie--is now a legitimate word that means determination and spirit. While it's not sold much anymore outside of the northeast United States, you still see it pop out now and then in popular culture. Anyway, I'd never tried the drink, and since it is a distant cousin to sarsaparilla, I figured it was worth giving it a try.

Perhaps things are best left as theory. Moxie taste like--well, there's no better way to put it. It tastes like carbonated cough syrup. Oddly, it's actually not that bad: it's not very sweet (despite sugar being a main ingredient) and it's very light. I can easily see why people get addicted to it; I know enough people that have a love-hate relationship with the taste of OTC medicine. It is not, however, what I would consider the taste of determination to be. If I could find a diet version, I could see this being an occasional indulgence.

Chocolate-Covered Maple Smoked Bacon: This one deserves a close-up:

"Breakfast In A Bottle" indeed. I've had chocolate-flavored pop before (verdict: Just go eat some chocolate instead) but I've never had bacon-flavored. I've had bad luck with bacon-flavored things lately; most of it just tastes like the fake smoke you put in toy train sets. (Not that I'd know, of course.) Of course, adding maple into the mix is a game changer, although I'm not sure what game it's changing to.

First thoughts: it smells delicious. But that's mostly because all you smell is chocolate. And it tastes...not bad, but mostly because all you taste is chocolate. You can clearly tell that there's maple in it once the aftertaste kicks in, but I barely noticed a hint of bacon. Once I took a few swigs (more than sips, less than gulps--you have to pace yourself with this sort of thing unless you want it to end up on the floor) I could taste all three things--bacon, chocolate, and maple--and it wasn't altogether bad. Not great, mind you--I couldn't drink more than a fifth of it before I said quietly to myself, "OK, that's enough," but if you want to win any bets with your friends you could do a lot worse. Even so, it's worth buying and trying just to say you did it.

Coconut Wave: While I was able to find the other two items in a small, disposable bottle form, I wasn't able to find a third item to fit the theme. However, Wal-Mart, of all places, provided me with a good choice: coconut-flavored soda.

At first, I thought it was weird, but, really, how is it all that much different than, say, a lemon-lime drink? And that's sort of what I expected with this--a light drink that tasted sort of like coconut, much like Sprite kind of tastes something sort of like lemon-lime.

However, I couldn't get behind this drink. It actually tastes exactly like Sprite, except the aftertaste, which tastes like artificial coconut. This isn't really a drink I'm interested in--even if it was in diet form, where the artificiality of it might not be so bad, I don't think the novelty of it would stick after a few sips.

Final Verdict: If you are going to sit down and drink a coconut, chocolate-covered maple bacon, and cough syrup cocktail in one sitting, be fully prepared for some burps that are nothing short of Lovecraftian.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Board Game Review: Forbidden Desert

Forbidden Desert puts you and your crew crash-landed on a vast desert landscape. It's up to your team to piece together your escape vehicle and get away from the steampunk-inspired lost city that you've discovered alive. Forbidden Desert is designed by Matt Leacock, the same designer of the much-heralded game Pandemic.

Like Pandemic, this is a cooperative game. Each player takes on the role of some sort of specialist, like a Navigator or a Meteorologist. Players are looking for four parts of their vehicle which are a propeller, an engine, a sundial-type thing, and a...spiky orange thing?

Whatever that orange thing is on back, I want no part of it once it gets me home.

The game starts off with a bunch of desert tiles placed randomly in a 5 by 5 grid, with the center tile missing. There are also piles of sand all over the place. Most tiles look like nothing but dunes, although some have a small icon noting the possible presence of water as well as the starting point. Players travel around these tiles, excavating them and taking any bonuses they get. There's also a sand storm marker to note how bad the sandstorm is.

A desert landscape with a few of the tiles turned over. Note the piles of sand (the plus-shaped tokens) and the "eye of the storm" in the middle. 

Each player, on their turn, can take four actions. This can be a combination of moving, digging out piles of sand, excavating a tile, and picking up a part. After they take their actions, the sandstorm moves.

The sandstorm moves in such a way that it will shift the tiles. In the image above, the yellow card with the red arrow is a "shifting sand" card; it means that the eye of the storm (the space without a tile) is going to move two spaces to the right. To do so, it simply shifts the two tiles to make room for it. Every tile that gets shifted also gets a pile of sand on it. Since multiple cards are drawn as the storm gets worse, the eye of the storm will probably shift multiple spaces in multiple directions each turn.

Players are trying to excavate as much as they can, because the goal is to find the missing parts. These are found by excavating two different tiles: one notes the column while the other notes the row, and where the two intersect is where the part is. Of course, since the sands are constantly shifting, where the part was last turn may not be where it is this turn, so it can be a bit of a chore. In addition, all that shifting sand is producing a lot of piles of sand--all of which require valuable actions to dig out. In addition, players simply can't enter tiles with a lot of sand piled up on it, and many players may find themselves buried in the sand with no recourse but to dig themselves out!

Occasionally, a "Storm Picks Up" card is revealed; this will increase the intensity of the storm. There's also a "Sun Beats Down" card that will cause the players to get thirsty--each player has a certain amount of water, and when they need to take a drink and find their canteen empty, they're dead (and the game is over). Thankfully, there are several wells in the desert, although coordinating everybody to be in the same spot can waste valuable time, and one of the water spot is actually a mirage.

There's also a few other items. Tunnels connect two parts of the map, and can protect you from the sun. There are also cards can be drawn to aid you in your quest. There are quite a few ways to end the game in failure--if there's too much sand, not enough water, or if the storm just gets too out of control. Winning simply means collecting all the parts and getting everyone back to the launching pad.

What I Like About The Game:
  • The "shifting sands" concept is very innovative. It's so simple, and yet once you see it in action it's amazing what it does to the board.
  • The part clues mechanism is also very clever. It's one of those things that has a small amount of information with a big impact. A lesser game designer could have made it significantly more complicated for no reason.
  • It's a nice, short game; an easy game takes less than half an hour. It's incredibly easy to teach and, since it's cooperative, easy to help players along.

What I Don't Like About The Game:
  • It may be a touch too simple. For players used to the intensity of, say, Pandemic, there just isn't as much tension flipping over shifting sand cards. It's certainly not bad, and this is a game that can stand on its own, but it may leave some players unsatisfied.
There's not a lot of downsides to this game. Not everyone loves cooperative games, of course, and if you aren't a fan this game won't convert you. And the theme and lightness of it can sometimes feel a little unsatisfactory. But the fun-to-time ratio is just about perfect, and it's hard to find too much fault with it. I'd give this a solid B+ grade. I can't say I'd want to play it all the time, but I doubt I'd ever turn down a game.

Monday, November 24, 2014


There's a lot to pick apart about this news item concerning a new television series.

First off, this piece is about a comedy series called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, about a young girl who escapes a doomsday cult. Here's what you need to know:
  • It was created by Tina Fey
  • It stars Erin the secretary from The Office
  • It is going to Netflix. 
Okay, maybe that's not a mix for instant comedy gold, but those ingredients have all been used before with excellent results, so the outlook is hopeful.

Setting aside the talent pool (it also includes Carol Kane and some other solid character actors), the real news, I guess, is the move to Netflix after NBC had it. (It's telling that NBC let it go because it didn't fit in their "drama-heavy" schedule, which is not normally a good thing; having a decent mix of all sorts of programming is ideal. It's particularly notable since NBC's bread-and-butter has always been comedies; a who's who of the best comedies of the last 30 years is overwhelmingly from the peacock network.) Netflix isn't perfect, but it's becoming an increasingly legitimate avenue for content. Setting aside the unusual format (all episodes of a season drop at once), it also gives new series a chance to breathe. Had Unbreakable had its debut on network TV, there's a pretty good chance that if it didn't find an audience in, like, three episodes, it was as good as dead. Via Netflix, they're guaranteed to have a specific number of shows in the bag.

Still, there's a chance that Unbreakable won't click. It does seem pretty gimmicky, and I'm not sure exactly how much humor they can wring out of that premise. Some of the cast are from things I don't care for, and sometimes throwing a bunch of good talent together ends up just being an unfocused mess. Still, it's an ambitious and promising projects, so we shall see.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dead Man Blogging

I died last night.

Well, not really.

I was involved over this weekend in a dinner theater/murder mystery. A Murderous Affair, it was called, written and directed by Rhiannon Bowser. I was, of course, the victim.

My acting skills in action.

The story involves a rich head of a family, Victor Elm, whose interests include running a dog shelter; his wife, Samara Elm; their live-in French tutor, Armand; whiny sister Vivian; and the daughter, Storm. Add into the mix a crazy cat lady and an animal rights activist, and you have a very...tense fundraiser. Victor uses the opportunity to talk to the family about the will, which he plans on changing due (in part) to the screwed-up nature of the family.

When the lights go out, Victor is found dead, beat over the head with a candlestick, and it's up to the inspector (along with two trusting cops) to solve the murder. A lot of people seemed to have wanted Victor dead; the animal rights activist thinks Victor uses his dogs for fighting; the cat lady would rather the money go to her own cat shelter; the sister is upset she's no longer going to be in the will; the wife and the tutor seem smitten with one another and would seemingly love to have Victor out of the way; and everyone's upset that the will is going to Armand, who isn't even in the family.

As in true dinner murder mysteries like this, the audience got involved as well. Random members were given cards with information on them (such as Victor's sketchy lawyer, or ever sketchier tight-lipped mobster friend) and they improvised an interrogation. After the second act, audience members could vote on who they thought did the deed. And cast members spent the intermissions working the room in character, trying to drum up suspicion and deflect blame. (Except me, of course. I had to hide in the corner. I had planned on spending the rest of the play behind the scenes, but the only place was a scary, cold storeroom. So I just hid in the corner and played games on my phone. It's so much fun being murdered.)

Murder mysteries can be tricky. The plot needs to be complicated enough so that enough evidence can be presented so that there are several reasonably likely suspects, but not so complicated that the audience can't follow it. The audience needs to be engaged; if they aren't, the parts of the play that can be the most fun--the interaction--can fall flat. Thankfully, both the script and the audience worked masterfully together. When the audience voted, the votes were fairly evenly distributed, so no one character came across as obvious.

One of these people killed me. OR DID THEY?

The entire experience was fun. I'm not an actor by any means, but everything ran smoothly and the audience enjoyed it. Our performance is over, but I strongly recommend you attend one of these whenever you have the opportunity.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Candy Review: Russell Stover Big Bite Candies

It's a bonus review! This wasn't going to be part of the regularly scheduled candy review program, but when I saw them at the store I couldn't resist. Russell Stover has released in the past a line of what they call Big Bite candies, which are essentially candies larger than what you'd find in a box of candy, but smaller than an actual candy bar.

Unbeknownst to me, there's actually an entire line of these things, including Pumpkin Pie, S'Mores, and Red Velvet. It's probably best I just saw these first.

The Cookie Dough candy is pretty good; it tastes like actual cookie dough, not some weird cookie-dough-style-flavoring. The Apple Pie is really, really good, except for some reason that slice of graham cracker at the bottom isn't attached; it's just kind of there. (My package basically had graham cracker dust.) Still, the candy itself was excellent and I can honestly saw that if you feel like having apple pie but don't want to actually get an apple pie, this is a reasonable substitute. Finally, Caramel Apple is good, although my least preferred, mostly because the apple flavoring isn't particularly strong. To me, it just tasted like a thick, caramel candy, which certainly isn't bad.

I haven't tried the other candies in this line; I'm hesitant on some (I don't care for pecans, and some of the other flavors seem pecan-heavy) but more than willing to try others. But these candies are really, really good. They don't suffer from the artificial flavor that most specialty candies do (they are artificial; they just don't taste like it). The biggest negative is the price; I couldn't find these for any less than $1.50, and for a candy that's less than half the size of a standard candy bar that's a little too steep for a casual dessert. (Basically, they're half the size and twice the cost.) But they are high quality, and I'd say they are worth it for an occasional snack. If they could be consistently found around a dollar or so, they'd certainly be worth picking up more often.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: The Doorbell Rang to Death of a Dude

This is the ninth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project.

In this post, we're looking at The Doorbell Rang, Death of a Doxy, The Father Hunt, and Death of a Dude.

The Doorbell Rang is arguably Stout's best-known work. After reading a (real-life) book, The FBI Nobody Knows by Fred J. Cook, a rich woman contacts Wolfe concerning her relations with the FBI. She had purchased 10,000 copies of that book and sent them to prominent people across the United States, including government officials, and now she feels as if she is under surveillance. Wolfe takes the case, having read the book, in return for a huge retainer. Archie, initially ambivalent at such an open-ended prospect with a huge organization such as the FBI, soon falls in line, especially after Inspector Cramer meets with Archie secretly. Cramer has an unsolved murder that he believes was the work of the FBI, and--after getting a request from the FBI to revoke Wolfe and Archie's licenses--knows that something is up. The pair soon solve the murder, but also plan an elaborate trap to embarrass the FBI. Then begins a showdown between Wolfe, Cramer, the FBI, and the murder suspect.

This is not only one of Stout's most famous works, but in many ways his most politically charged. Generally speaking, aside from offhand statements, Stout largely strayed away from politics in his books, notable especially given his real-life reputation. This was an exception; it's a broadside fire against the FBI as an institution, and the time frame (1965) was when the FBI (and J. Edgar Hoover specifically) was just starting to come under heavy criticism.

At first, it seems a little awkward--the impression one gets is that the client is there just to set up a situation where Wolfe/Stout can pen an anti-FBI screed. But it soon melds into both a standard murder mystery and reasonably seamlessly weaves in the FBI's involvement. In many ways, it's a refreshing change of pace: Cramer is largely acting in good faith; Wolfe is practically jubilant at the end (more than just "very satisfactory"), and the writing is tight and top-notch. Some of the individuals are acting out of character (justifiably, given the situation), it's hard to recommend this as an initial book to read. But otherwise is one of the best.

In Death of a Doxy, Orrie Cather is implicated in the death of a woman. She was upset that Orrie was going to marry another woman, and used a fake pregnancy to pressure him into leaving her. When she winds up dead, or course, Orrie is the main suspect. Wolfe--along with Archie, Saul, and Fred--can't imagine that he would do such a thing. When it turns out the victim was the mistress of an extraordinarily wealthy man, Wolfe has to go through great pains to prevent his identity being known--not only because it would cause their case to fall apart (although it would free Orrie) but also because of a promised fee. Wolfe and Archie weave an intricate tale that manages to find the murderer while also protecting different individuals from getting different information.

In The Father Hunt, a young woman approaches Wolfe about finding her true father--and after he finds out her father has (indirectly) been sending her immense amounts of cash, they undertake the  case. The cash was sent after her mother's death, which ended up being a hit-and-run, so (of course) murder is involved. After their first two attempts at finding the father fail, a rigorous interview with a former colleague nets a small piece of information that soon allows them to let everything fall into place. This book sounds like it will be a companion piece to The Mother Hunt, but they are quite different. Notable in this book is the increased presence of evidence detection--paternity and advanced fingerprinting is mentioned. Again, the conclusion is solidly constructed and the plot moves quickly.

Death of a Dude is one of the longer, more complex mysteries (albiet only about 30 pages longer than most other novels). Archie is spending his month off with Lily Rowan in Montana, only to have a local man murdered. Archie, convinced he is innocent, writes Wolfe to say he's taking a leave of absence; this, of course, prompts Wolfe to make a cross-country trip to help out. Being away from the brownstone complicates things, as the local police and attorneys know little of his reputation and chafe against his non-Montananess. Things come to a head when yet another man is murdered and Archie is thrown in jail. A little help from Saul, and Wolfe and Archie manage to catch the killer. While this is a fantastic story from a character development standpoint--having Lily around helps things out--and having everyone out of their element is fun, the murder mystery itself isn't terribly satisfying. Still, who cares? The threadbare evidence is simply a frame with which to hang everything else at this point.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Great Gallifreyan Ass-Pull

I finally got around to watching the entire season of Doctor Who.

If you're not a Doctor Who fan, this post won't make much sense to you. If you are and you haven't watched it yet, there's spoilers ahead.

I won't go into the details of the season, although I'd like to make a few points about it.
  •  Peter Capaldi is awesome as the Doctor. He chews the scenery, his personality is fine-tuned enough that he's his own Doctor, and his interactions with everyone are exactly what you'd expect. He was a good choice and exactly what the storyline, fan base, and writers need.
  • I've never been sold on Jenna Coleman as companion. Yeah, yeah, every single companion is horrible because they're not exactly like the previous companion, but usually after a few episodes they sort it out. This never happened with Clara Oswald. She's...merely okay. She never seemed to have much of a personality, and I always kind of resented that the end of Matt Smith's tenure had her do so many important things even though she had been a companion for such a short time. (She's very much like Martha Jones to be--serviceable, but her character is flat.) There was no emotional payoff with her, and when she glided in full season with Capaldi her romantic subplot just seemed awkward. I'm glad she's gone.
  • The scripts this season were downright dreadful. As in, if my goal was to turn new people on to the wonder that is Doctor Who, I would never tell them to watch anything from this season first. Some stories were fine, but over half were just downright...just bad. So, so bad. This is the key reason why I just now got around to watching them--my wife and I just had to stop halfway through the season.
  • Building from that. Steven Moffat has to go. I don't know if he's spending too much time on Sherlock or whatever it is that he's doing, but the writing (and, to be honest, the "arc storyline" of this season) was just horrifyingly bad.
  • A special mention has to go to Kill The Moon, which is hands-down one of the worst things I've ever actively watched. A plot that makes no sense--even by Doctor Who standards--a clumsy allegory that even the dim-wittedliest Dalek couldn't miss, and horrible dialogue all coalesced into a train wreck of an episode. My wife and I actually stopped watching for a while, because it was so embarrassingly bad. It's frustrating to get excited by a series such as Doctor Who just to be disappointed week after week. 
To be fair, you have to suspend a little bit of disbelief with Doctor Who. The show has never shied away from clumsy plots, nonsensical stories, or any sort of continuity. But the sharp writing, brilliant acting, and general adherence to the mythos has always held it together. You could stomach the blatant symbolism, the artificially introduced deus ex machina, and the narmy plots because at the end of the season it all made some sort of sense, and at the very least the ride was fun along the way. (This happened a lot during the Pond years--yeah, a lot of stuff didn't make sense, but the chemistry between Rory, Amy, and the Doctor made it just plain fun to watch even if the plot derailed on itself five minutes in.) Season eight was not a fun ride; in fact, I couldn't wait to get off.

Hopefully a new companion, a decent Christmas special, and a new showrunner? (fingers crossed) will help for future seasons.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Candy Review: Weird Roadside Candy Bars

There's nothing more American than the kitsch of a roadside attraction. I'm self-aware enough to know that most of these are tourist traps, and yet I'll admit I have a soft spot for them. On a recent trip we ran into Mr. Ed's Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium, which is exactly what you think it is. They have...lots of candy. Lots and lots of candy. And very little of it is of the mass-market kind. Here's a small sampling of what I found.

Since I occasionally do candy reviews, I generally like to peruse places like this to try out weird and new candy. And since it is, you know, a candy emporium, I was able to pick up a bunch of different candy bars. Unknowingly, four of the five are from a company called Annabelle's Candy, which the clerk told me was based out in the west. (I went back later to get the fifth.) I've never heard of any of these before, but perhaps out west they are more common.

Abba-Zabba: This is a chewy taffy bar with a thin layer of peanut butter in it. It's not bad--in total, it's certainly flavorful--but it didn't have a whole lot going on for it. The taffy itself was rather bland, but it was a good contrast with the PB.

Big Hunk:This candy bar was a little deceiving. Despite the fact that it comes in a dark brown wrapper and has a name that sounds like it should be a big hunk of chocolate, there is no chocolate to be seen here. It's basically a big bar of nougat with a lot of shaved peanuts pressed into it. While it wasn't bad, it wasn't particularly satisfying, either. It's worth a try but I wasn't a huge fan.

Look!: And yet, here we are with the Look! bar. Which is basically a Big Hunk dipped in chocolate. This is what I thought the Big Hunk was going to be, and it was pretty good. I'm not sure I like the whole "long strip of nougat" concept that both of these have, because they effectively are big bars of taffy...which is difficult to eat. The Big Hunk wasn't bad, but for this one there was chocolate everywhere. Still, this was one of the better of the bunch.

Rocky Road: This was an oddly satisfying candy bar. Most rocky road bars have a graham cracker, then just throw a thin layer of marshmallow and cover it with chocolate. Not so with this one; the graham cracker and marshmallow are chopped up and the entire thing is dipped in chocolate. This was by far my favorite candy bar of the lot, and I'm not normally a fan of marshmallow in candy bars.

U-No: (Not Pictured) When I realized that I only had 4 of the 5 members of the Annabelle candy line, I figured I might as well get it to try it. It's...ok. It's almost like a Three Musketeers Bar, only the chocolate inside tastes more solid and more like chocolate. The consistency, however, wasn't particularly appealing. Not bad but not to my taste.

Idaho Spud: This was the only non-Annabelle candy bar in the bunch, and...well, I don't know what they were thinking. First off, it claims that its the candy bar that makes Idaho famous"--uh, no. Nice try, but no. But the bar itself is made up of some unholy concoction of corn syrup that tries to pass itself off with the consistency of a potato, covered in chocolate. Kind of. It's hard to describe. No, it's easy to describe: disgusting. Even the coconut on the outside couldn't salvage this one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Board Game Review: Betrayal At House On The Hill

Mummies creeping out of closets? Lurking horrors stumbling down the creaky hallways? Vampires emerging from the shadows? If you're looking for a reliving of every schlocky B-grade horror flick you've ever seen, you need to check out Betrayal At House On The Hill.

In Betrayal, players are exploring a haunted mansion. Players take on the persona of a stereotypical horror film victim--a creepy old priest, a precocious child, a mesmerizing dame, and so on. Each has a simple set of stats--Might, Speed, Knowledge, and Sanity.

At first, the game is somewhat cooperative: players are basically exploring the mansion, finding hidden rooms and creepy dens and gross laboratories. Most rooms will trigger an Event (something weird happens with an immediate effect); an Item (a strange object that will help you in some way) or an Omen (something daunting that may be good or bad or just weird.) Other rooms grant some sort of bonus, or require a die roll to escape, or something to that effect. Character stats fluctuate based on different things. And so on. The board is modular, so the game will look different each time you play. There is an upstairs floor, the ground floor, and the basement.

There's a small set of rules that cover things like attacks, and stealing items, and movement restrictions once the traitor is determined. 

Any time an Omen is triggered, the player who triggered it rolls some dice; if the result is equal to or less than the number of Omens that have occurred, the haunt begins.

When the Haunt starts, the game shifts in tone. One of the players is now the traitor and they turn against the other players. Exactly how this plays out changes from game to game; there are over 40 haunts listed in the manuals. One time, it might be a vampire who has to turn all the other players into vampires, while the other players have to survive until dawn. Or maybe it's a tentacle that has overtaken the house, and must pull its victims to its arms to kill them. The rules change drastically from game to game, so it's literally an entirely new game once the haunt starts. The non-treacherous players, of course, have to use whatever Items, Omens, and other resources they've been accumulating the first half of the game to defeat the traitor.

The thing is, neither side knows what the goal of the other side is. The game comes with both a survival guide (for the heroes) and a Traitor's Tome for the traitor. Each side takes their respective booklet and reads up on what their side needs to accomplish, what restrictions they have, and what special abilities they now acquire. They may or may not tell the other side, depending on the scenario.

Because the second half of the game is so different, the goal is different each game as well. It may end after a certain number of turns, or it may not end until someone kills all the other players. Or whatever.

What I Like About The Game:

  • The first half of the game is simple, quick, and fun. Players are basically exploring the house, turning over tiles, and resolving conflicts. There's very little pressure; players are just getting the "feel" of the house. (And, yes, that's a thing--it's creepy when you realize that, say, one segment of the house is blocked off from the rest.)
  • The haunt rolls get increasingly more tense. At the start of the game, the chance of a haunt is small, and people are comfortable. But as the Omens stack up, everyone starts freaking out that they aren't prepared--and guess what? You're never prepared, and it's eventually going to happen! The tension that this simple die roll makes is fantastic. 
  • It's very creative. Once the haunt begins, there's a huge pool of material to pull from. And no two games are ever going to be alike: not only because each scenario is vastly different from the others, but the house itself is going to be different each time. The characters develop much differently each game--in one game, the scientist might have gotten a lot of Might bonuses and a bunch of weapons, whereas the next game he might be a borderline lunatic. 
  • The entire concept of having two sides who have information the other side doesn't is just fun. Having one person scurry off with the Traitor's Tome to read secrets in another room--there's just something amazingly awesome about doing that. 
  • The format of the game lends itself nicely into teaching it. In the first part of the game, players are all helping each other, more or less,so it's easy to discuss rules without consequence. By the time the haunt begins, players are familiar enough with how things work that the few "extra" rules (how to attack, for example) will be easy to teach.

What I Don't Like About The Game:

  • Because of its two main selling points--a modular board and a new "rule set" in each scenario--it can become very unbalanced. Many scenarios require having a certain item, or going to a certain room. If you happen to lose that item, or if no one has it, you're in for a long game; whereas if you do have it, it's going to be much easier. It can be very frustrating when you need to get one specific thing and all you can do is sadly roll dice until it happens. Thankfully, most scenarios give you multiple routes to accomplish things, but it can still be a huge pain.
  • Also, because of the fluctuating rules, the haunt can be intimidating for new players. It's hard to guide someone when you aren't supposed to know all of the stuff they need to do, especially if they aren't familiar with board games in general.
  • Board game purists are going to hate this game. It's very luck-dependent and, because of the huge divergence in rules, there's going to be a lot of times where players just have to come up with the best solution of an ambiguous problem. Most things require a simple common-sense sniff test, but if you're the type of player who needs clarity and well-defined boundaries you're not going to find it here.
Betrayal isn't just playing a board game--this is definitely an experience game.Strip away all the wonky rules and die rolls, and you can really feel a story being told. Every single game I've played of this has been a memorable experience, so much so that I immediately wanted to play again. As I mentioned, the sort of gamers who need to win within specifically delineated rules aren't going to have much fun with this. But if you're a fan of horror movies and can paper over some rough patches, Betrayal At House On The Hill is a fantastic game. I'd grade it a B- as an actual board game, but a clear A as an "experience."

Monday, November 17, 2014

Turn Off The Power

Sadly, it appears as if Pittsburgh's own arena football team, the Pittsburgh Power, is ceasing operations.

I won't lie; this makes me a little sad. (I even have a blog tag for arena football!) We've gone to quite a few games there and it's always a fun time. (For those who don't know, arena football generally has the same rules as regular football, except that it's indoors and has a 50-yard field. Extra points are also handled a little differently.) Arena football is a lot of fun; it's fast paced, it's high-scoring, it's just downright exciting. While standard gridiron football also has its pluses over arena--a bigger field means bigger payoffs--there's just something satisfying about arena.

Unfortunately, I doubt they will be able to field another team here; there's always hope that a new investor group might wring out some more life out of the franchise, but probably now. Possibly a new venue (being at Consol couldn't have been cheap) and a new ticket-selling strategy, but one assumes that if those options were viable they would have been tried already. Oddly, the Power had one of the lowest attendance records in the entire league, which to me is strange because Pittsburgh loves stuff like this and the Penguins (well, Consol) advertised the heck out of it every game. If nothing else, it was a great place to take kids that was still relatively cheap, but it could also be a fun date.

I guess people like me are part of the problem. We went to a few games, but haven't been there in two seasons--we always thought about it but never got around to actually doing it. Since it's not televised (or at least not televised in any convenient manner) you can't really follow the sport, and the lack of star players (or, really, any sort of player you would actually know) means there isn't much information to retain.

Part of me is still hoping that a solution can be found, but realistically I don't see how that's possible.

Wither Japan?

What the hell happened to Japan?

It wasn't that long ago that Japan was on the rise. Japan was the future of the world, the flag-bearer of the post-Cold War landscape. Just check out the cover of Paul Kennedy's landmark book, The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers: 

The UK is stepping down, the US is getting ready to, and Japan is climbing up. If you were around when this book was written in the late 80s, this was not an unusual thought.

The 80s were a good time for Japan, economically speaking. They were by far the fastest growing nation, and was rivaled only by the US when it came to size--quite a feat given the small size of the island. The 90s were not so great, as a recession (at the time casually linked to the US's early-90s recession) slid deeper into a lost decade of stagnation. That lost decade has just about spread to two decades, and the Japanese nation knows it.

There were plenty of theories at the time as to why things didn't work out, although one of the more common theories was that they were *too* successful--Japanese stakeholders ran out of things to put money in (deflation had forced interest rates to be near-zero) so they started investing in land overseas, which rarely ends well. That's right--they spiraled into a recession because they ran out of things to buy. Obviously that's not the only reason, and it's a lot more complicated than that, but that was a major factor.

The political landscape has been overhauled as well. Japan more or less was a one-party state from after the war until the 90s. After that, it was a disaster; Since 2006, Japan has had seven prime ministers (albeit with one repeat) and what was once one of the most stable democracies in the world is a mess.

The fact that Japan is slipping into yet another recession can't bode well for its future. Oh, make no mistake; Japan is not a failed state, and they're still the third biggest economy in the world. Japan's not going anywhere for a long time. Still, though, it's alarming how long their troubles have lasted, and one wonders how much longer it's going to be.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Choose Your Own Adventure

The publisher and author of many of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, Raymond Montgomery, died a few days ago.

For those who don't remember, the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) line was a series of books printed largely in the 1980s and 1990s. The books--focused on fantasy, mystery, and science fiction (but also other "exciting" genres like spies or explorers)--were a kid-friendly romp through an adventure. At certain points in the narrative, pretty much on every page, the reader got to make a decision. It might be something simple, like either going right or left, or something more engaging, like pulling a lever or opening a box. As such, each novel actually had multiple endings--some good, some bad, but always fun and engaging. (As a bit of trivia, it's also one of the few modern works written in the second person.)

It may seem a little tame now, but it's sometimes hard to remember that this was all before the internet and sophisticated video games. It would be a decade or two before home computers could create compelling video games that let the user make meaningful choices that impacted the storyline; likewise, the internet wasn't even close to a household utility. If one wanted to, quite literally, "choose" their own adventure, these books were pretty much it. (Notably, they were aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds, and often served as a stopgap until the kids who were interested in the genre could progress to proper pen-and-paper role playing games.)

Of course, there were plenty of imitators. I specifically remember one that had an inventory system, so you could write down objects as you collected them, and if you had them in a later chapter you would get additional options. It also had a (in retrospect, kind of stupid) random number generator, where you'd close your eyes, circle your pencil around, and where it landed is the number you "rolled." Of course, after about a dozen times it was chewed up and littered with little dots, but it got the job done. (I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit, but could never find any other books in the same series.)

Anyway, after video games because sophisticated enough and the internet opened everything up, the needs for CYOA diminished. They're still around, in different formats, but it's not quite the same. Still, it's an unique idea that filled a need when it was needed.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Homicide Trinity to A Right To Die

This is the eighth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project.

This time, we're reviewing Homicide Trinity, Gambit, The Mother Hunt, Trio For Blunt Instruments, and A Right To Die.

Homicide Trinity includes Eeny Meeny Murder Mo, Death of a Demon, and Counterfeit for Murder. I'll say it right now so I don't have to repeat it three times: These are horrible titles.

In Eeny Meeny Murder Mo (ugh), a young woman who works for a law firm comes without appointment to see Wolfe. Wolfe, upstairs in the plant rooms, had previous gotten a stain on his tie and had left it on his desk. When Archie went to consult with Wolfe about the case--a divorce case where the prospective client had seen the opposite side with one of their own lawyers, and was going to hire Wolfe to investigate this breach of ethics--Wolfe declines, as he doesn't touch divorces. When Archie goes back downstairs, the client is dead, strangled with Wolfe's necktie. Wolfe, angered that his own tie was used to murder someone in his own office, takes to find the murderer out of spite. The mystery itself is interesting, although the resolution is somewhat pedestrian.

In Death of a Demon, a woman arrives at Wolfe's office simply to hand him a gun--she wants to kill her husband, but knows it's not right, so hires Wolfe to basically take the gun away from her and inform the police if asked. Of course, while there, it turns out that her husband is murdered, and she is already a suspect. While in jail, she sends a note to Archie authorizing him to enter her house and get a specific box--it turns out the victim was not a great person and had many enemies--but when Archie arrives there are a group of people already searching the house illegally. Again, this is a well-constructed and interesting story, but the climax is a letdown.

Counterfeit for Murder involves a big wad of funny money--which, of course, eventually leads to a murder. The story begins with an older eccentric who hates cops, coming to Wolfe to stick it to them, but eventually devolves into a standard mystery. Again, this story suffers from being a short story; while the run-up is humorous and provides some good writing and banter, the climax is mostly routine. It's still a fun read, though.

Gambit takes a look at the not-very-exciting world of chess. The Gambit Club, where influential people take chess very seriously, had recently invited a gimmick-driven showman to play several games "blind." TO do this, of course, required a certain number of messengers and--wouldn't you know it--he ends up dead. The messengers are all put under suspicion, and it's clear that at least one of them was framed and, most likely, was the true victim. A pretty decent story, although the "chess" angle is not really played up to its full potential. Still, there's a lot of excellent repartee between Wolfe, Archie, the clients, and even Fritz, who at one point is required to take over for Archie (!). As is the pattern, the motive for the murder is kinda lame, but it doesn't really matter in the end.

During The Mother Hunt we are treated to Wolfe and Archie trying to solve a maternity suit decades before DNA evidence. When a widow finds a newborn on her vestibule--marked that her late husband was the father--she hires Wolfe to find the mother. In the course of doing so, Archie sets in motion a cascade of events that result in two different murders. With the help of some fake evidence, a trip to Arizona for Fred Durkin (and Florida for Saul), and a baby carriage hooked up with a camera, Wolfe not only finds the mother but also the murderer. This is an interesting tale, unencumbered with the usual artificial ploys endemic to many of Stout's mysteries. It's also a good display of what happens when Wolfe's plans don't work out--the first few ploys completely burn out and Wolfe is left trying nearly anything to solve the case.

Trio For Blunt Instruments includes Kill Now, Pay Later; Murder is Corny, and Blood Will Tell.

In Kill Now, Pay Later, when Wolfe and Archie's shoeshine man comes to them, telling them of the death of a former client, Wolfe instructs him to go back to the scene of the crime and tell the police. The next day, his daughter approaches Wolfe; her father has been killed, presumably because he saw something he shouldn't. Since it's apparent she is also in danger, she beds down in the brownstone. When it's clear that the motive for the victim sullies the reputation of the daughter, Wolfe encourages her to file a slander suit. This ruffles enough feathers to get the suspects roiling, and a last bit of hard evidence seals the deal. While this is a nice story, it does bother me that Wolfe has his client sue Inspector Cramer--even if it is clearly a ruse, it just seems wildly out of character for someone that Wolfe has a begrudging but real respect for.

Murder Is Corny has a horrible title, but otherwise is surprisingly good. When Wolfe's supplier of corn is disrupted (and the helper murdered) Wolfe is coaxed into finding out why. (It doesn't help that a suspect lied about Archie was to give her an alibi, and Wolfe is resentful that Archie's dalliances with women has caused him grief.) A solid mystery, not only because the standard jilted-lover angle is played with amusingly, but the entire point of Wolfe getting riled up because of his corn is fantastic.

Blood Will Tell involves a mysterious package that was sent to Archie, a necktie with a blood stain. He then gets a call from the person who sent it to burn it, as he's changed his mind about whatever he had in mind. Archie, smelling something suspicious, soon gets wrapped up in a murder. A decent, brilliantly described story that relies on hard evidence.

A Right To Die, set in the center of the Civil Rights fight, recollects a previous character: Paul Whipple, a key witness in Too Many Cooks, written around 25 years previous. Paul, now a professor, calls in a favor for Wolfe to find out why a rich white woman wants to marry his son--Paul is not opposed to mixed-race marriages, but is suspicious that there is an issue. Rich white women don't marry poor black men, even in New York and even if she volunteers at a local civil rights organization. Of course, she ends up dead, and Paul's son, Dunbar, is thrown in jail. Wolfe considers it part of the favor to clear his name,

Books written during the civil rights era are tricky: they can either be jarringly blunt (with their outdated terminology and carefully moderated positions that look awkward in retrospect) or they can be mealy-mouthed and overly sympathetic. Stout somehow manages to balance all of these remarkably well. While the phrasing is still a little dated, Wolfe clearly comes across as progressive for the time while also lobbing valid criticisms at the civil rights movement; Archie, meanwhile, makes mains to show he's not racist while not losing his sense of humor about the entire ordeal (and even has eyes for a fair young black lady, which he needles Wolfe about frequently). It doesn't descend into heavy-handed polemics; it paints the civil rights movement as needed and right if occasionally flawed; it presents a wide range of attitudes, from the idealistic sympathizers to the realistic to the outright racist; manages to take a serious issue and still inject humor; and it somehow manages to weave a nice, solid mystery that makes sense, incorporates race while not being about race, all framed in an amazingly tasteful way. It's certainly not perfect, and modern audiences may still feel a little awkward at times, but it manages to still be one of his better novels.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Unnecessary Hand-Wringing Of Accomplishment

Yesterday, we landed a spacecraft on a moving comet. (I'm using the royal "We," since it was Europe who actually paid for and accomplished the feat.) I'm enough of a pro-exploration nerd to slightly raise my first in a "Go Science!" sort of way, although I didn't know it was going to happen and wasn't following space news to know anything about what this is going to accomplish. I more or less assumed that all the space agencies in the world are just tossing probes up there and hoping something will stick, like bacteria on the moon or Trigilladian casserole recipes.

Of course, leave it to a major innovation in the fundamental understanding of the universe to bring out the unsatisfiable sourpusses of the world.

A trending twitter hastag--which at this point has eclipse the 24-hour news network and water cooler talk as the most important indicator of a story's importance--was created, the lengthy #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant. (Pro tip to future trend-settings: Twitter only has 140 characters. Try not to use up a majority of them next time.)

A lot of people used it to make stale (and some admittedly clever) jokes, which is what I believe the intent of it always was. Of course, that didn't stop hordes of activists on both sides of the spectrum to instead use it to point out the seemingly pervasive misfires in society. As in, we can land on a comet but we can't (PICK ONE) fix health care/close the borders/feed the hungry/lower taxes/house the homeless/etc.

I won't lie--that's a pet peeve of mine. Society isn't some linear progression of problems to solve. We can work on some things while others are being fixed. We can trumpet our successes without guilt simply because there are other problems on the docket.

The sad reality is that certain problems are never going to be completely solvable. If you simply fixate on a problem that will never be solved, you can't progress beyond that. It's difficult to think about, but society does, in fact, set priorities on different problems, and that's okay. Society is about difficult choices, and those difficult choices will always exist. For example, is it better to leave .05% of the people homeless, if it means spending money on those .05% is going to cause 1% more people to go hungry, or .75% less job growth due to higher taxes, or cause a 4% increase in property taxes?  The best thing to do is to do the best we can, come up with a level of support that everyone agrees on once the tradeoffs are factored in, plant enough safety valves (such as non-profits) to try and catch everybody else, and move on. Finding that balance between all of these things is part of what makes a modern democracy work.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Candy Review: Fall-Themed M&M Flavors

M&Ms have had a relatively decent track record when it comes to new flavors. (See here, here, and here.) So when the Mars company produced a fall-themes holiday line, I figured it was worth it (in the interests of science, of course) to try and review each one. This year, they released Candy Apple, Candy Corn, and Pumpkin Spice.

I apologize for the above photograph; I didn't have them all in one place at the same time, so I had to knock up the world's lament collage.

Pumpkin Spice: Since everything, by law, has to have a pumpkin spice version, this is no different. It's actually quite mild; I didn't hate trying this one because it was combined with chocolate. This at least made it different than most other pumpkin-flavored varieties. Still, it got old after only a handful, so this is one of the ideas where a little bit of it goes a long way.

Candy Corn: As I've mentioned in the past, I don't care much for candy corn. And, like the Carrot Cake M&Ms I linked above, the first few you try are good but then you're done. This one is white chocolate, which I am also not a fan of, and so this was a definite pass for me. I will say that it tastes exactly like you think Candy Corn M&Ms are going to taste like; the only question is really "Is it worth eating this over regular candy corn?" My guess is no, but it's at least worth a try.

Candy Apple: This variety ended up being my favorite, but it's also by far the mildest. They're solid chocolate with a slight apple-ish aftertaste. It's not bad--the chocolate is nice and strong, and I suspect the apple flavoring brings it out a little bit. I'm not really sure if it's worth buying this over regular M&Ms, but apple is a pretty universal flavor and I can't imagine really going wrong with it. It's certainly worth trying out.

All in all, I was disappointed with this group. I know I'm not the target customer for some of this (Candy Corn never had a chance) but I'm always hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Board Game Review: Ticket To Ride

Ticket To Ride is rightfully considered a classic board game. Released just ten years ago, it's sold over two million copies (and, more importantly, shows up regularly on shelves at big box retailers) and is destined to stay around for the long term. From publisher Days of Wonder, let's take a look at it.

In Ticket to Ride, players are trying to earn the most points. They do so in two ways: by laying down train track between different cities, and fulfilling "routes" depicted on cards. The route cards are by far the more lucrative way of winning points but can be very difficult to pull off.

The basic game is a map of the United States and Canada.

Each turn, a player may do one of three things: draw train cards, draw ticket cards, or build track.

When drawing cards, a player may choose face-up cards or cards from the top of the deck (or a combination). You don't know what card you're getting when you draw from the deck, but then again neither do your rivals. (You may also not want any of the available cards.) There are also "wild" cards; if one of these is selected face-up, it's the only card you can draw that turn. (If you happen to get a wild card when drawing from the deck, great; you can still draw two.)

If you choose to draw a ticket card, you draw three of them, and may choose one, two or all of them to take. (You have to choose at least one.) There's no limit to how many train or ticket cards you can have in your hand.

Train cards above (the wild card is on the left); ticket cards below.

Finally, you can build track. In order to build track, you must have the appropriate color of trains in your hand. For example, looking at the map above, if you wanted to build a track between New Orleans and Miami, you would have to discard six red train cards. Gray routes on the board can be fulfilled with any color of trains, although they have to all be the same color. (For example, if you wanted to build between Phoenix and El Paso, you could play three green cards or three red cards or whatever--three cards of any similar color.) Wild cards, of course, can stand in for any color.

Each time you build any track you score a small number of points. At the end of the game, any ticket cards you have fulfilled gain you the number listed on the card; you fulfill it by having uninterrupted track from one city to the other. If you fail to do this, you lose the number of points on the card! There's also a bonus for the longest track on the board. Highest scoring player wins!

What I Like About The Game:
  • It's simple and yet relatively deep. There's strategy involved of when to draw cards and when to start building routes, because once you start building there's a race to see who can reach what city first...and then players pull back as they reassess their holdings. The game is basically rummy, only when you make melds instead of just putting it on the table you convert it to a train track.
  • There are plenty of good, solid choices. Do you go for a series of small routes, or do you try for a few big ones? Do you keep drawing cards so you can cover any contingencies, or do you start connecting cities before your rivals do? When do you start drawing new ticket cards, and when it is too late to do so before getting caught with a bunch of unfinished routes that are going to penalize you? While these decisions are plentiful, they're simple enough that most players can grasp them pretty quick.
  • Game play is fast. You can only do a limited number of things on your turn, and two of the three can be done in a few seconds. Only when it's time to lay track is there a little work involved. It keeps players engaged almost the whole time, whether it's their turn or not.
What I Don't Like About The Game:

  • There's a strategy called "blocking," which is exactly what you think it is: If you see a player trying to connect a route from one city to another, you can simply build a section of track to block them off. In theory, it's a nice concept. In practice, however, it can cause a lot of frustration, because the cost of blocking is incredibly cheap and the cost to fix it is very expensive. Someone can spend two trains to force another player to spend twelve trains. Thankfully, the map is robust enough that there's enough safety valves to prevent this from happening too much, but still, it can sometimes cause issues.
  • The coloring of the map is off. It's weird having both a yellow player and yellow track on the board. I understand there's only so many colors they can use, but it can still confuse new players. 
In the end, Ticket To Ride has sold all those copies for a reason. It's a simple game--especially if you are familiar with rummy, since this game is simply rummy with extra rules. It's a common and exciting theme that a lot of people are familiar with. It's one of the most common gateway games used to introduce new players into the hobby and it's hard to argue with it's longevity. I grade it an A.

Monday, November 10, 2014

What Have You Read Lately?

Far be it for me to link to a Buzzfeed article*, but, well, why not?

This one is a quiz (Yay! A quiz!) about lying about what books you've read.

The quiz, by itself, is humorous enough in its conception, but I won't lie; there's several books there I've never even heard of. (I'm assuming it's a bunch of stuff that high schoolers now have to read.)

It seems like no one really reads any of these books; the only one with a majority is The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Twilight, and (barely) The Catcher In The Rye. I'm a little surprised at 1984 and Great Expectations, which I thought were more or less standard in our curriculum, and at the very least 1984 is pretty good independent of an English class. (As an aside, I'm fully aware that this is an internet quiz, so it's far from scientific, but still.)

The only book on the list I've ever lied about reading is Gravity's Rainbow. I know deep in my heart that I would love that book, and it's been sitting on my shelf for, oh, I don't know, ten years now, but every time I crack it open I just get a feeling in my stomach that I don't want to even start it. (For those who don't know, Thomas Pynchon is known for writing very...dense books.) So I kind of have convinced myself that I know I would like the book and would understand it so, from a purely theoretical standpoint, I have read it. Theoretically.

I'm a little disappointed that Catch-22 isn't read by more people; I find it to be a very accessible book, and its humor foreshadows a lot of the satire-laden humor that enmeshes a lot of today's culture.

Of course, I generally find lists of books to be a waste of time. Back around the turn of the century,
the Modern Library released a list of the "Best 100" books of the 20th century. I was in college at the time, and looking over the list I realized that I was woefully unrepresented; I believe I had maybe read ten of them, and most of them were begrudgingly read at the behest of my high school teachers. So I decided that, as part of my quest to be a well-rounded individual, I would try to read as many as I could.

I decided to start at the top of the list, which was Ulysses by James Joyce. I got about thirty pages into that pile of dogshit and declared that if this is what the critics think is the best book of the 20th century, I didn't even want to bother with the rest of the list, so my project was immediately abandoned and I just read stuff I liked. Let me repeat: Ulysses is garbage. It's a steaming pile of pretentious vomit, whose only utility in life is to prop up the sad, lonely lives of tenured professors, whose only bright spot in life is the self-masturbatory exaltation of pretending like Ulysses has hidden depths to which only English majors have the super special secret key. I'm all for literary theory and subtly and high culture, but Ulysses isn't it. I wouldn't use Ulysses to prop up a wobbly table lest the table begin to deconstruct itself. Ulysses is what should have been a publisher's reject, the literary equivalent of the rotten scrapings from a hot, fetid dumpster. Ulysses has done more to destroy joy in literature than all the book burnings in history combined. Ulysses is not a good book.

Anyway, most books are awesome and people should read more. The end.

*PSA: I hate Buzzfeed. In and of itself it's not a particularly bad web site; link and content farms are hardly new, and they actually have some utility. However, I feel they're responsible for the obnoxious "You won't BELIEVE what happened when this one-legged dog came home from Afghanistan!" clickbait horseshit, so they are permanently on my shit list.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Adventure Time

There's a genre of literature that I miss, and that's the "adventure" title.

"Hold up," one might say. "Adventure is everywhere. It's not dead!"

Well, kind of. Adventure novels are generally defined as a story in which the protagonist is involved in something that is outside of their normal, everyday lives. (Think Robinson Crusoe or King Solomon's Mines.) A stranger going to a city would be an adventure; a detective solving a crime, no matter how thrilling, would not; that's his job. As such--while people can quibble about the definition--you just don't see it too much anymore in writing.

Why, one may ask? Probably because a staple of adventure novels was the Undiscovered Country--people from Europe traipsing around, say, Africa, or South America, where only the most intrepid explorers had set foot. (Needless to say, the default intrepid explorer is always white.) Even past the Victorian era, were everything was more or less explored, you still could have adventures, since travel was expensive and there were enough wars going on that it could also be dangerous. Even throughout the Cold War, adventures could be had--plenty of closed-off societies in the world.

Today, however, that's no longer the case. You can pretty much go anywhere and do anything, with very little by way of hardship. (At least comparatively so.) Any adventure title will have to be historically researched, and that's always more tedious.

In addition, it seems the province of adventures is now better served by movies and (to a lesser extent) television.

It's a genre I wish would make a comeback. I am sure there are plenty of writers out there that might be conjuring up some fantastic work, but I just can't find any.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

First Blood

As I mentioned in my review a few weeks ago, the television program Selfie was decent and had some potential, but there were enough things wrong with it that I wasn't in a hurry to keep up with it. As of a few days ago, it has officially been cancelled.

In a way, it's a shame; by all accounts it was getting better. But a subpar pilot combined with some poor marketing (along with that atrocious title) doomed it from the start.

Any time something like this happens, I just have to scratch my head. Presumably, television executives are pretty smart; they spend most of their days making judgement calls that none of us, as viewers, have the experience to make. We all know that extensive focus groups, marketing, and research goes into every single thing that goes on the air, so when something like this misfires it just seems mystifying.

Now, I'm not talking about the garbage you often see. There are some shows that are just bad at first look. I'm talking mostly about things like Seflie--all the appropriate ingredients are there, there's plenty of talent, the potential is there...and then something like that horrible, horrible title balls the entire thing up. It's like setting up a perfect chess move and then having an elephant knock the table over and shit on it.

This is, of course, nothing new; every season for the past 80 years, a few dozen shows make it on the air, and you can count on one hand the number that make it past 13 weeks each year.

It almost seems like the entire premise is broken--if TV shows are that expensive to produce that if it doesn't turn a profit (or looked promising to do so) after two or three episodes, then something is wrong. Maybe find some way to lower costs so all shows get at least 13 weeks, or somehow mitigate the risk of a show flopping. Because like most huge projects, a ton of money goes into launching each of the dozens of shows, and the payoff is only keeping four or five? It seems like the industry should be more forgiving, rather than spending a bunch of money and immediately cancelling it.

Hopefully, pressure from places like HBO and Netflix will revolutionize things. I would love to see a network guarantee all their new shows 13 episodes, ratings be damned, and adjust their budgets accordingly (and giving writers and actors the security to not try scammy ratings-grabbing stunts and go for quality). Then again, it's really hard to justify that when you can churn out an incredibly cheap reality TV show and probably get better ratings. The TV Industry might be screwed up, but not nearly as bad as us viewers are.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Champagne For One to The Final Deduction

This is the seventh installment of the Nero Wolfe Project.

Today, we're looking at Champagne For One, Plot It Yourself, Three At Wolfe's Door, Too Many Clients, and The Final Deduction.

In Champagne For One, Archie is called to fill in for an associate of a former client, who runs a charity house for unwed mothers. He volunteers to be a companion to one carefully selected female--presumably to get them acclaimed to normal life. When one of the young ladies dies of poison, it's written off as a suicide, since she had kept poison in her purse and bragged frequently and recently about taking her own life. Archie, ever the detective, had been notified to this effect, and so had been keeping an eye on her--and knew that there was no way she had committed suicide. Since Inspector Cramer knows full well they can't dismiss Archie's statement, they have to hold off on declaring that it's murder--and so Wolfe has to go along to solve the murder by revealing secrets and going through the motions of that night.

It's a solid story, but the most notable thing about this book is the emergence of Fritz. Fritz! Obviously, he's always been a part of Wolfe's stories, much more than Theodore, but in this book Archie and Fritz have several long conversations, and Fritz openly talks about getting clients. It's refreshingly different and reads like something that should have happened from the beginning, because the dialogue is downright awesome.

Plot It Yourself details a group of publishers and writers of varying sorts who are being blackmailed. Several writers are claiming plagiarism against major successful writers, and old copies of their submitted manuscripts are somehow showing up on the premises--obvious plants, but no one can prove it and so settlements are made. After the fourth one, the committee approaches Wolfe to make it stop. After some research on the manuscripts, Wolfe tries to back out since it becomes hopeless, but one member suggests offering one of the accusers a modest sum to spill the beans, and several members chip in. When Wolfe agrees, Archie approaches each one...only to find each one murdered just as he gets there.

Again, we're treated to an active Fritz in this book, and the mystery is unique enough that this story stands out. There's also some amazing comic relief--Archie showing up to each victim just as Stebbins does, and they both give increasingly disgusted looks at each other.

Three At Wolfe's Door: Includes Poison a la Carte, Method Three for Murder, and The Rodeo Murder.

In Poison a la Carte, a fancy dinner is served for a group of gourmet enthusiasts, who call themselves Aristologists. When one of their number is poisoned, the actresses hired as servers come under suspicion and inquiry, since the order in which the dishes were served makes a difference. It's a solid story--and Archie gets to keep his hormones in check with so many actresses--but otherwise forgettable.

Method Three For Murder starts off with Archie quitting, and as soon as he steps outside he runs into a client. The client has a dead body in her cab, which she's borrowed in a bid to confront her estranged husband. An interesting story, with perhaps a little bit too much time dealing with the "Archie quits and so whose client is it really" aspect.

In The Rodeo Murder, a rodeo being held in New York (and Lily Rowan hosting the festivities) brings a bunch of cowboys within Archie's purview. One of the rodeo contestants is at a disadvantage when his usual rope goes missing--which, of course, ends up around the neck of a rival. Lily hires Wolfe to resolve the murder since it took place at her place, and Wolfe manages to piece it all together. It's a pretty solid story which could have easily devovled into making fun of the rubes out in Texas, but handles a good number of red herrings, motives, and opportunities to be a good story.

Too Many Clients: A rich director of a plastics company comes to Wolfe to see if they can tell if he's being followed, giving Archie an address in a seedy part of the neighborhood. When the director doesn't show, and turns up dead, Wolfe and Archie realize that the person who came to them wasn't the director at all; just someone pretending to be him. They then discover that the reason the location was given is that it's the second home of the director where he entertains guests of the female persuasion. They hire Fred to stay in the apartment (and Archie strikes up a friendship with the Puerto Rican couple who run the building), and as each of the director's lady friends show up to get their belongings, Fred catches them and they all approach Wolfe, independent of one another, to hire him to help keep everything a secret. Several threads come through this mystery--the landlord's daughter turns up dead and was blackmailing one of the women; Archie and Wolfe try and keep the room a secret from the police, since it's their only way to keep getting the info they need and identify the director's guests; the conflict between the company and the widow, both of whom want Wolfe to decide things in their favor; and so on. One of the better books, and the subject matter is refreshingly mature yet handled decently.

The Final Deduction: The rich wife of an actor approaches Wolfe; her husband has been kidnapped, and she wants Wolfe to handle it to make sure he comes home safe. After he is, the assistant of the family is found dead, and Wolfe knows that she was somehow involved in the kidnapping. When, as per the terms of his engagement, he won't reveal the details of the kidnapping until a time limit is set, Archie and Wolfe try and dodge making any statements to the police. When the husband winds up dead anyway (and the police suspect it was an accident), the widow turns against Wolfe who knows it is murder. Another decent story, although the resolution of the murderer is a little weak.