Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dual/Duel Review: Amelie Poulain vs. Edith Piaf

Dual/Duel reviews are an online smackdown between two books, movies, games, podcasts, etc. etc. that I think are interesting to compare, contrast, and comment on. For a list of other dual/duel reviews, go here. Also, this is more of the leftovers from Europe this week.

Inspired by our trip to Paris we watched some Paris-based movies, Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (known in America simply as Amelie) and La môme (known in America as La Vie en Rose). Both movies are French productions, set (at least in part) in Montmartre (where we had our hotel), and award-winning movies.

The first film is a bit of a fantasy about Amelie, a girl who grows up with overprotective and slightly bonkers parents. She retreats into a world of her own imaging to cope, and continues to do so as an adult. A chance discovery of a hidden box of toys sets her on the path to connect with others in a more meaningful way, including a potential boyfriend. The movie is very light-hearted and charming. Amelie herself is irresistibly charming. It's hard not to root for her. The movie is a fun, life-affirming fantasy.

The second film is a biography of French singer Edith Piaf. Her life story is told in a mixed-up chronological order. She is born to a circus performer and an alcoholic mother. She is raised at different times by these two, in addition to her grandmother who runs a brothel. Piaf's life is full of tragedy and heartache (some of which is self-inflicted). The story of her rise to fame and subsequent efforts to keep performing holds the viewers' interest but ultimately is full of lots of misery. She's somewhat sympathetic if ultimately unlikeable, as is Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. I can't help drawing a parallel between the two character and wonder at why I like the movie about Kane more than this one about Piaf. But that's an argument for another post. The movie is a gritty historical biography.

I enjoyed Amelie a great deal more than La Vie en Rose, which in a certain sense makes it a better movie. If I had to rewatch one, Amelie would win that match-up several times. The movie has a more artistic visual style and the likable protagonist is much easier to watch. So the win goes to Amelie Poulain!



Monday, November 23, 2015

Tea Time with Taylor's

I recently discovered some old posts that were more or less finished drafts but never got posted. I celebration of Thanksgiving, this week will have some European leftovers. First up, a taste of England. Look forward to more European-inspired but neglected posts for the rest of the week!

I went to a presentation on tea presented by Victoria, a nice lady from Taylors of Harrogate, purveyor of tea and coffee, including the famous Yorkshire Tea. She presented some history and trivia about tea as well as providing several different brews to sample.

She said that Taylors produces around 40 types of teas, from black to red to green. She asked us what we thought the average tea consumption was for England. The answer was 60.2 billion cups a year. Then she asked about US consumption. The US consumes only 65 billion cups a year, which is surprising since the UK population is around 60 million and the US population 310 million.

Tea was first invented in China 5000 years ago. The emperor Feng Shun had been banished. In exile, he would only drink boiling water. One day a leaf fell into the water before it was served to him. It changed the flavor and eased his heart, hence it was called "Tai" which is Chinese for peace. Gunpowder tea is a closest to this original form. The tea is unfermented with a slightly sharp flavor. The tea gets its name from the shape of the leaves. When they are dried out they "ball up" into little nuggets that look like gunpowder.

The next advance in tea making also happened in China. As tea became popular, there was pressure to provide the dried leaves of the tree faster and faster. One fellow found that the leaves would not dry overnight, or sometimes would be damp with dew. To combat this, he set a fire in his tea drying room. He used bamboo and the smoke from the fire gave a distinctive flavor to the tea. Thus Lapsang Souchang came to be, a smoky black tea that is a personal favorite of mine.

In 1603 the Dutch received the first tea. They brought it back to Europe. The French never cottoned on to tea, but the British began to adopt it. Charles II's neice caused it to become quite popular when she started drinking tea with her breakfast rather than beer. You may blame or praise Queen Anne decision depending on your taste.

Earl Grey tea is named after the second earl, who was prime minister under William IV. The most reliable story goes that he was gifted by a Chinese ambassador with a tea infused with bergamot oil to offset the lime in the water of his country estate. Lady Grey would offer the blend in London and it wasn't long before a demand grew. The tea is often used in cooking to flavor rice or cakes.

Often teas have been blended with other oils or flowers to produce healing properties in the drinks. So occasionally flavors are associated with teas that don't come from the tea leaves. One example is Moroccan Mint, which adds mint extract to gunpowder tea leaves to create a distinctive flavor. 

Tea bushes grow in fifty countries. The bushes could grow to a height of forty to fifty feet but most growers keep them around four or five feet to make harvesting easier. Higher altitudes make better growing conditions (that emperor was exiled to the Himalayas, perhaps). India is a prime grower now. Darjeeling is the most expensive Indian tea. The robust flavor and the high price have made it the champagne of teas. More common is Assam which originated in a region 300 miles north of Calcutta.

As for Yorkshire tea, it is a blend of east African and Indian teas (and I thought they were grown in Yorkshire--whoops!). Charles Taylor started a business in 1866, importing teas. He had some kiosks in Leeds where they sold tea and coffee. He also opened the first Betty's Tea Room in Harrogate, which has subsequently turned into a chain of tea shops in Yorkshire.

At the end of her presentation, Victoria had a bag of different items that were related to tea. Here's some of the items:
  • Dust pan--because the finest tea is often little larger than dust particles. Having bought much loose-leaf tea in my life, I can attest to this.
  • Drum--teas are blended in large drums, though they only turn the drum twelve times at Taylors.
  • Trowel--used tea bags are good for gardens.
  • Silk--the first tea bags were made with silk!
  • Whiskey--often in the Victorian and pre-Victorian eras, if you ordered whiskey or beer, you really meant tea.
  • Face cream--green tea extracts are often used in cosmetics like face cream.
  • Sea shell--fancy tea spoons are often scallop-shaped, probably from sailors using shells to scoop out tea.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Movie Review: Predator (1987)

Predator (1987) directed by John McTiernan

Arnold Schwarzenegger (his character has a name, but let's be honest, Arnold is playing Arnold) and his crew of commandos is called into a Central American jungle to extract a cabinet member whose helicopter crashed in hostile country. They fly in and discover things aren't as Arnold was told. They find three skinned corpses of a previous extraction team. And no cabinet member. They do find an invisible hunter who is offing Arnold's crew one by one. Can they make it back out of the jungle, or will only Arnold survive?

The movie is a great action picture. There's enough plot to string everything together and the villain, the mostly unseen (until the end) Predator, is menacing and effective. The special effects, even though they are almost thirty years old, hold up. John McTiernan's direction is straightforward and doesn't distract from the story or the action. Schwarzenegger gives a good performance as himself, though he doesn't have as many cheesy one-liners as in other of his '80s action films, which can be good or bad depending on how you feel about that kind of humor.

Predator is a fun Friday night action romp.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Game Review: Dead of Winter by Plaid Hat Games

Dead of Winter designed by Isaac Vega and Jon Gilmour, published by Plaid Hat Games

People want to play zombie games for two (not necessarily inclusive or exclusive) reasons: to survive under extreme conditions and to kill lots of zombies. Most games cater to the later reason but Dead of Winter gives players the chance to try out their survival skills. The game has a colony board (which is the players' home base) and six locations where they can gather supplies (food, fuel, weapons, other people, etc.) but risk being killed.

Three locations and the colony board

The game comes with several scenarios and only a few of those require a lot of zombie killing. Many involve gathering supplies of one type or another to survive the winter or achieve another goal. Players can discuss what they need to do during each turn and for the game as a whole as they do their individual turns.

The players each choose two characters to play (who typically have special powers, like the nurse who can take extra items when she searches the hospital) and get five random starting items.

Characters and items

The standees (characters and zombies)

The players are also given a secret objective, like having extra food or medicine at the end of the game. The secret objective makes the players work toward something else in addition to the main goal. Thus the game is semi-cooperative. Occasionally, a player will draw a "betrayer" objective that requires the group to lose the main goal for that player to win. The trick with this role is that if the other players guess there is a traitor, they can exile the accused person. If rightly accused, that player is given a new objective and can no longer have characters at the colony, making it difficult to survive.

Secret objective cards

Balancing the need to cooperate for the overall victory condition with an individual, secret goal makes the game tense and interesting. Each round has a special crisis where the group needs to contribute items to a common pool to avoid the crisis. The item cards are placed face down and shuffled when it's time to check if there are enough resources to prevent the crisis. If some of the cards are the wrong type, a traitor is probably in their midst.

The game also features Crossroads cards. On each player's turn, another player draws a card and silently reads the triggering event for the card. The event can be anything from having a specific character or performing a specific action (such as going to the police station or taking a drink of water!). If the event is triggered, the other player reads a short paragraph ("On the way to the police station you run into three kids...") and then the main player has to decide what to do. Typically there are two choices. Both may be good, both may be bad. Occasionally the group has to vote on which option to take. The Crossroads cards make an interesting and flavorful addition to the game.

Crossroad cards

All these elements make an intense, interesting game that we keep coming back to. The zombies keep coming every turn, escalating the tension as everyone works towards the common and their private goals. The private goals and the possibility of a traitor makes it hard for an alpha-gamer to take over the game, sometimes a problem with cooperative games. The game is fun and challenging and well worth playing.

Zombie Apocalypse Appropriateness: While the game does let people try out their survival skills while the zombies are after them, the game might be a little redundant during the actual thing. Plus, it's a big box with lots of pieces, thus a lot to carry around. Unless you do have a colony with lots of other survivors who are scavenging through the local town...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang et al.

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

12 year old girl Hopper has to go to a new school. She wants to fit in but it's a weird place. The main building looks like a haunted house and has the number nine all over it. Another building is padlocked shut. Creepy bird with four eyes perch in the trees. She tries to make friends with three boys but one accidentally gets pudding on her. To make things even, she spits on him. Of course, this is the beginning of their friendship. His name is Eni and he's been going to the school since kindergarten. He's always had the feeling that something is odd about the place. At lunch one of the birds notices Hopper's earrings shaped like the number seven. The bird opens three eyes. Eni thinks he knows what's going on with them. They are expressing numbers in binary code with their eyes (closed, open, open, open). This discovery starts them on the path to unravel the school's mysteries.

The graphic novel is pretty short but a nice introduction to the very basics of binary coding. The book even gives the readers (it seems like it's aimed at 12 year-olds) a chance to do some coding, making it both fun and educational. Sadly, the next book isn't scheduled to come out until August 2016, a very long wait.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Our Garden 2015

We've been thinking about having a garden for quite a while (even before our time in England). This year we finally built one, a small four foot by eight foot plot. We bought some railroad ties and rebar and made our box. Thanks for the great help, Grandpa! The box was filled with a mix of topsoil and garden soil. Then we got to planting. Some stuff we had been growing from seeds in smaller pots on the porch. Transferring was a little more work. We had chard, tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and chives.

Getting advice from Granpa

Carefully planting some pre-grown plants

Checking for bugs

Online advice recommends using cardboard tubes (like from toilet paper or kitchen towels) to grow seeds. The tubes can be put straight in the ground and will rot away, leaving the plant plenty of room to grow. Cardboard will be the plan for next year.

The work wasn't too difficult since we have our own Master Gardener (Aspiring Division) here at home.

Making a last inspection

All done (for now)

Wait, how did my hands get dirty

The garden grew well. We had plenty of small tomatoes which were hand picked and hand eaten by the Master Gardener (Aspiring Division). A few even made it into the house. The herbs contributed to many dishes. A couple of eggplants even graced our table.

From our yard

By the end of the season, we felt a satisfaction unlike any other. We look forward to next year's crops.

The last of the edibles

Monday, November 16, 2015

The First Haircut

The baby has passed his first year. Unfortunately, his hair has been growing too long. Twice he's been identified as a she at stores. It was time for a hair cut. Mommy took him to the local barber where he's seen us get our hair cut, hoping that he'd be more comfortable. Things started out okay since he got to sit in Mommy's lap.

The phone is blocking his view of the instruments on the table

Once things got going, he became more stressed out.

Wait a minute, what's going on here

Here come the scissors

Not so comfortable

He never cried out loud but he was surely an unhappy camper.

What have you done to me!?!?!

At least he looks like a boy again!

The only advice I can pass on to other parents is to steel yourself for your child's discomfort. It's unavoidable but well worth it for the results.