Sunday, June 25, 2017

Perl blog post #55


As promised and/or threatened last week, this week I’ve done a new post on my Other Blog.  It relates to some long-awaited (well, at least I was long awaiting it) updates for my latest CPAN module, Date::Easy.  If you’re into that sort of thing—Perl, and CPAN, and dates, and whatnot—you should totally check it out.  If everything I just said is gibberish to you, you may have to wait yet another week for anything sensible to show up here.









Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day malaise


I was hoping I could get a post this week, as I’ve been pretty spotty lately.  But in the end I was defeated by Father’s Day, which took up quite a bit of time, although in a much more enjoyable fashion than recent events.  I’m hoping to put up something Perl-related on The Other Blog long about mid-week, as YAPC is this upcoming week and I won’t be able to attend, for the first time in several years.  So I’m hoping to achieve an update to one of my CPAN modules in lieu of actually being there.

Anyhow, the short answer is, you get no post from me this week, unfortunately, and next week I’m likely to just point you back to my mid-week technical Perl post, so I’ll try to get back to a more normal schedule the week after that.









Sunday, June 11, 2017

Curse of the Computer Gods 2: Double Trouble


About 8 days shy of six years ago, I made a post that started with these words:

You know, the hardware gods hate me.


And it’s still as true today as it was back then.

The bulk of my weekend has been spent wrestling with reinstalling Linux on both my laptops.  So far, I’ve been mostly successful on one.  Still a long way to go.  And not enough time or attention to stop and make any nifty blog posts for you.  But, hey: at least your life doesn’t suck as much as mine.  You can always comfort yourself with that.










Sunday, June 4, 2017

Saladosity, Part 9: The Rest of the Cold Stuff


[This is the ninth post in a long series.  You may wish to start at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]


Coming close to being done with the grocery store—honest.  Today we’re going to pick up a few refrigerated goods (other than the meats and cheeses, which we already covered).  I’ll try to keep it brief.1

Dairy

Now, I know that some nutritional tribes shun dairy (most paleo, and in particular Whole30).  If that’s your flavor of food religion, then you can just skip this section.

Milk.  I admit, I’ve taken to buying organic milk recently.  Not particularly because I can taste the difference, but I think mainly just because I’m using “organic” as a proxy for “treats their cows well.”  Which is getting dangerous these days, as more and more “factory farming” outfits try to jump on the organic bandwagon.  Of course, “organic” also encompasses “rBST-free” and “not treated with antibiotics,” so at least I’m getting those.  And a bit of research on the old Internet tells me that (at least as of 2010), organic milk must come from cows that spend part of their lives roaming around freely, and that’s really the part that I want.  But there’s no doubt that, unlike the price differential between organic veggies and non-organic choices,2 organic milk is quite a bit pricier than the alternative.  So if you’re looking to skip organic anywhere, here’s probably the best place.

Another consideration is lactose intolerance.  I personally don’t have any issues unless I consume milk in large quantities.3  However, at least one of my kids is pretty sensitive to the lactose, so we’re now buying lactose-free milk.  If they make organic lactose-free milk, I haven’t discovered it yet.  (But, if I do discover it somewhere, I’ll probably buy it.)

Then there’s the question of fat content: especially if you’re in one of the low-fat camps (like the Weight Watchers tribe), you probably care less about organic and lactose-free, and more about 1% or maybe even skim.4  I happen to think milk fat is in the category of “good fat,” but obviously opinions will vary widely.

The short answer is, get whatever milk you can get that fits your exact needs.  Maybe the only guideline that’s really useful across all the options is, buy local where you can.  Keep your local farmers in business, man.

Sour cream.  Milk is nice and all, but sometimes you just gotta have some sour cream.  It’s excellent for dressings of all sorts, plus making homemade dips out of.  Again, I’ve been buying organic lately, and the only real downside of that is that it tends to separate on you.  If that disturbs you, first remind yourself that this is one of those things you just deal with because you’re eating actual food now.  Then, get a big spoon, and stir it up.  The end.  Seriously: if separated sour cream (or yogurt, or whatever) is the worst problem you’ve got, you’re one lucky individual.

Eggs

Here again, the main thing I personally look for is some indication that the chickens are being treated well.  To that end, I often favor “cage-free” over strictly organic.  Still can add a noticeable chunk to the price, but honestly I’ve come to really dig the taste of wherever my local TJ’s is getting their cage-free eggs from.  I like to buy the biggest ones I can get (the “jumbo” size, typically even larger than the “extra large”), and I happen to get brown where I live.  Honestly, there’s really no difference between brown and white eggs.  Just depends on the particular strain of chicken.  But there’s no difference in taste, or health value, or any of that.

I’ve heard it’s possible for eggs to go bad if you let them sit around long enough, but I wouldn’t know.  Eggs in our house never last that long.

Guacamole

Making your own guacamole has recently gotten so popular that it’s sending people to the emergency room.5  Well, I say “screw that.”  Trader Joe’s has an absolutely divine guac which comes in 16oz packages, and even Costco has a really great option which comes in even handier 8oz cups.  Sure, I could make my own ... but this series is all about easy, right?  As long as the ingredient list is good (which it is in the both the options above), and it tastes good (both do), then what more do you really need?

Besides, guacamole vacuum-packed like either of the above options will keep in the fridge for several weeks, which is way more than your homemade stuff will.  That’ll be gray in under 24 hours.  (Note: You can still technically eat the guacamole when it’s gray.  It just doesn’t look very appetizing.)



And that’s it for the cold stuff.  Next time, we’ll do our very last bit of shopping.  For realsies.



__________

1 But, you know: no promises.

2 At least in my part of the country.  Your mileage, obviously, may vary.

3 For instance, I had to give up eating big bowls of cereal, even long before I decided to cut out most grains, because the resulting cramps just weren’t worth it.

4 Personally, I say: if you’re going to drink skim milk, may as well just add some white dye to water and call it a day.  But, hey: you do you.

5 And that was but one of literally dozens of articles I could have linked you to.









Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sick of too much fun


Did you ever come home from vacation only to get sick?  Well, that happened to pretty much everyone in our house this week.  On the one hand, you end up being off from work for 2 weeks instead of one (more or less).  On the other hand, it’s totally not worth it.

Let me stop right there before I give you way more information than you really want to know.  Next week should be more productive.










Sunday, May 21, 2017

80s My Way (Intro)


[This is a post relating to my series about music mixes.  It’s not a proper post in the series, because there’s no actual mix featured.  However, it provides some background for some (hopefully) upcoming posts which will be part of the series.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]


While our musical tastes tend to evolve over time, there’s something to be said for the axiom that the music of our youth will always hold a prominent place—perhaps even the primary place—in our hearts.  In particular, I have a theory (unproven, true) that your favorite type of music is most often going to be the one that you first discovered when you diverged from what was handed down to you by your family.  You grow up listening to what they listen to, and you appreciate it, and maybe even come to love it.  But there always comes a time when you need to branch out on your own and find music that is uniquely yours.  When you need to prove that your musical taste is not just a reflection of someone else’s, but its own beast, capable of discernment and culture.  Whatever music it is that you latch onto at that point ... that’s your music, forever and always.  Even if you don’t listen to it all the time, even after a few decades have passed and your tastes have matured, it will always have the capacity to transport you and transform you.  First loves have power.

For me, the time of my musical discovery was the 80s.  I turned 13 just two months before the decade rolled over, and that was right around the time I began wondering if there was more music than the 50s early rock-n-roll and rockabilly that formed the majority of my father’s record collection.  Oh, sure: I loved all that stuff—Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley, and Roy Orbison, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Del Shannon.  But I was starting to discover another side to pop music: a stranger side, infused with synthesizers and riddled with surrealistic lyrics.  You see, I was witnessing the birth of what would eventually come to be called “alternative” music.  It was, back then, a giddy mix of post-punk, new wave, and synthpop, with vestiges of punk and psychedelia, and influences from reggae, swing, and even some of that rockabilly my data was so fond of.  And, jammed sideways into all of that, a second burgeoning musical movement that was cross-pollinating with alternative, each infusing the other with their style and techniques: hip-hop.  This was not my father’s rock and roll.

Now, the 80s means different things to different people.  For some, it’s stadium rock: “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, and “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner.  For others, it’s glam metal (Bon Jovi and Def Leppard and Quiet Riot), or rap (Kurtis Blow and Run D.M.C. and Beastie Boys).  I listened to all that at the time, and still listen to much of it today.  But that is not my 80s (although my 80s will touch on all of them).  My 80s is strictly alternative, in all of its amorphous, broad-ranging and far-reaching, over-inclusive-to-the-point-of-making-a-single-name-meaningless glory.  And, when I started making the current crop of mixes, back in the mid-2000s, I knew that one of those mixes had to be 80s My Way.

And the name was obvious too.  Even though I love Journey and Foreigner and Styx and Queen and all the rest, and even though some of those songs are ultra-classic and just as emblematic of the 80s as any I would want to hear, I wasn’t going to include them.  I would include way too many mega-hits to satisfy any discerning musicologist looking for hidden gems of the period, but I would also include way too many totally obscure songs that never charted anywhere to keep the attention of casual fans looking for an injection of nostalgia.  It really is going to be a mix (a mix with many many volumes) that will probably only satisfy me.  Although I hope it has some redeeming value to others, and I certainly won’t refrain from putting it up in this blog series.

I also made what would come to be a fateful decision on how I would organize the mix: chronologically.  Now, on the one hand, rough chronological order is a fairly reasonable choice for a retrospective on a decade.  But it also presents significant challenges.  My first, crazy idea was to arrange the volumes like so:

  • volume I: 1979 – 1981
  • volume II: 1982 – 1983
  • volume III: 1984
  • volume IV: 1985
  • volume V: 1986 – 1987
  • volume VI: 1988 – 1990

(We’ll talk about the decision to include ‘79 and ‘90 in just a moment.)  I liked the symmetry of telescoping in on the middle years, where the true heart of the 80s would no doubt lie.  Also note that I graduated from high school in 1984, so this also has a good deal of personal relevance for me.  But the first problem is, the music itself just isn’t going to cooperate.  I ended up with nearly 3 hours of tracks in 1982, for instance—1982 was just a powerful year, for whatever reason.  And, unlike with other mixes, I can’t just cut songs, or defer them for a later mix: with the chronological scheme, they either have to go where they go, or they have to get gone.  And most of the songs I picked weren’t really optional: it wouldn’t be my 80s without them.  So I had to lob symmetry out the window and just let things expand to fit what they would fit.

Another big problem is that music isn’t always so easily pinned to a particular year.  There’s the year it was recorded, the year it was released, and the year it charted, and those aren’t always the same year.  And picking one of the three doesn’t help: does “release” mean when it was released as a single, or released on its album, ’cause those can be different, and can be in either order.  Or what if it’s a song by a British or Australian group, but it was released in its home country before it was released in the US, which would be when I would have heard it?  If you choose charting, do you use the date it entered the charts, or when it peaked?  Which charts do you use?  Each country has its own charts, and the US has several (the “Modern Rock” Billboard list is probably the most relevant, but that doesn’t even show up until 1988).  For many songs, it doesn’t matter which marker you choose: the year ends up being the same.  But there were several songs where I ended up with my choice of two years to pick from, and a couple of wacky cases where I had three.  In all those cases, I just stuck it where it felt right to me ... it’s the 80s my way, after all.

But the biggest problem, of course, is that doing things in chronological order like this means I pretty much have to plan out the whole thing before I can really start finalizing any of the individual volumes.  Which sucks, and it explains why I’ve been “working” on this mix for many years without making any real progress.  But lately I’ve decided to get serious about finally producing something, and the one of the first things I realized is that I have to set some ground rules.  This mix is not going to be like any of my other mixes for many reasons, and it’s going to have its own set of rules which are different from the rules I usually use.  So I thought I’d do a separate post on what those rules were so I can refer back to it when I eventually get around to start posting volumes of this mix.

Without further ado, then, the Rules of My Eighties Mix Volumes:

It’s okay for the 80s to bleed out of its boundaries a little.  Like any decade-based cultural trend, 80s music does not magically spring into existence on January 1st, 1980, and cease to exist with a small pop on midnight of December 31st, 1989.  One of the first things I realized when I started compiling songs was there were some really important “80s” songs which were released in 1979, in particular “My Sharona,” which is so utterly archetypal of 80s music that it would be criminal to omit it for the sin of being ahead of its time.  Likewise, there are a few tracks released in 1990 that were still pretty 80s, although nothing so important as “My Sharona.”  Of course, I could go back to 1978, or forward to 1991, or even further in either direction.  But I had to draw the line somewhere, so the 80s is “officially” 1979 – 1990.  At least for my purposes.

One song per artist.  This is a much more controversial decision, and I struggled with it for a long time.  But there’s just too much damn music otherwise.  Even restricting myself to one song per artist, I’ve already amassed over 12 hours of music, and I think I’m probably going to end up closer to 15.  If I started bending the rules, even if only for some of the truly prolific 80s greats such as the Cure, Depeche Mode, INXS, R.E.M., etc, this mix would rapidly get so out of control that listening to it would be a chore instead of a joy.  Which sort of defeats the purpose.  So I’m going to end up leaving out some favorite songs because I wanted to choose a different song by that artist, and people are just going to have to deal with it.

What counts as “the same artist” is entirely up to me.  Adam and the Ants is not different from Adam Ant, but the (English) Beat is different from General Public.  It’s just whatever feels right to me.

The “No Reuse Rule” is out the window.  It’s just too hard otherwise.  I tried following it for a while, but a lot of the truly great songs were immediately ruled out because I was already using them on another mix.  And that’s not what I want my 80s mix to be: a collection of 80s songs not good enough to show up on other mixes.  Still, my decision to choose a lot of the bigger hits, which I tend to avoid on the other mixes because they’re too obvious, means that I won’t be breaking the No Reuse Rule as much as you might think.  But I will break it sometimes, and I’ll just have to be okay with that.

I’m okay with going over 80 minutes.  Normally I like to keep my volumes under 80 minutes, and I very rarely break that rule.  On the one hand, 80 minutes is a bit arbitrary—it’s how many minutes you can fit onto a standard recordable CD without overburning—but, on the other hand, it’s also turned out to be a pretty unit of time for how long I can listen to one thing (or one style of thing, or one theme of things) before I start to get bored.  But I’m not going to cut a really cool 80s song just because it would cause me to blow an arbitrary time limit.

There are no mix starters.  It’s just not that kind of mix.

I’m more flexible on transitions.  Transitions are a pain in the ass for this mix.  Songs which are close together in time often start and end the same way, and the lack of variety can make it hard to find tracks which butt up against each other well.  And there are no bridges at all.  I’ve just done the best I can, and that’s the best I can do.


So those are the rules.  There will still be volumes, even if they run a bit long, and there will still be volume namers.  (In fact, the first two volumes are already named, and their names were insanely obvious once I started picking songs.  I’m hoping the others have such happy accidents as well.)  I will still order the songs within each volume by whatever order I think makes that volume work best—similar songs may go together, or I may want to choose interesting tempo variations (slow songs leading to mid-tempo leading to fast songs, etc).  The volumes themselves will be in chronological order (given the caveats above), but the songs on a particular volume will not.  And, as always, every song will be something I consider a good song.  That means that your favorite 80s artist—even the alternative ones!—may not show up, just because I never liked them as much as everyone else.  But that just because, this is the 80s ... my way.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sentiment for the Day


Mother’s Day has come around again, and I’ve found myself pondering (as I do about every two years or so) how much I have to be thankful for in The Mother.  She’s not my mother, it’s true ... in fact, she is but one of many mothers that I appreciate for their hard work and devotion.  There are mothers that I rely on at work, at my chiropractor’s office, in my children’s homeschool groups, and even at my grocery store, where I go at least once a week and everyone there knows my name.*  Of course, not all the women who work at those places are mothers, and many of them I have no clue whether they’re mothers or not.  So I think it’s safe to say that those particular mothers I appreciate for reasons totally separate from their motherhood (although no doubt their many good qualities are informed by their motherhood).

Of course, there are still other mothers that I appreciate specifically for their maternal nature: mothers of friends, mothers of my children’s friends, even The Mother’s own mother.  Perhaps especially her, as she has often been quite supportive and quite helpful throughout the years I’ve known her.  But, let’s face it: the most prominent role of these women in my life is their children, and motherhood is a lot more than just giving birth.  Many of these latter kinds of mothers have done nice things for me personally, and of course I owe them for the gift of raising lovely human beings—no small task!—but, still, it’s not the same level as The Mother herself.

And naturally there is my own mother, whom I’ve written about before.  My mother and I have a fractious relationship, mostly revolving around me telling her how much it annoys me that every time she calls me I can’t get her off the phone, followed by her apologizing and promising to do better for the next hour or so.  But that’s just the present: there are plenty of past things to appreciate my mother for.  There is no doubt that my mother played a huge role in making me who I am today.  And yet ...  You know, I’m not sure where exactly the line is, but this is just about the point in my life where the time I’ve spent in close proximity to The Mother will surpass the amount of time I’ve spent with my mother.  That’s one of those factoids that seems both weird and right at the same time.

So The Mother, out of all the mothers, is at a level all her own.  There are no other mothers—perhaps not even any other peoeple at all—that have given me as much to appreciate as this mother.  That is something truly worth celebrating, which is really what Mother’s Day is for, I suppose.

Of course, Mother’s Day is one of those holidays invented by greeting card companies, right?  Just an excuse to sell more cards, so the story goes.  Except that, if Wikipedia is to be believed, it was actually invented by a woman named Anna Jarvis, who wanted to honor her mother Ann, a social activist and Civil War nurse who herself had organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to advocate first for public health and later for peace and neutrality during the war.  Ann died during the second week of May in 1905, and Anna began her campaign to establish Mother’s Day that same year.  The first official Mother’s Day celebration was in 1908, in Anna’s hometown of Grafton, West Virginia; by 1914, she had convinced both Congress and President Wilson, and the holiday was official.  Granted, the commercialization (by Hallmark, among others) was not far behind: by 1923, Anna was organizing boycotts of her own holiday, threatening lawsuits against greeting card companies, and crashing candymakers conventions.  She (supposedly) said:

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.  And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself.  A petty sentiment.


So railing against the commercialization of the holiday is only a decade younger than the holiday itself, and both were initiated by the same individual.  But the point is, the commercialization is newer: not by much perhaps, but, no, Mother’s Day wasn’t invented as an excuse to sell greeting cards.  It was invented by a daughter, to honor her mother, who in turn had organized other mothers.  So, as it turns out, celebrating the many reasons we have to appreciate the various mothers in our life is what Mother’s Day is all about after all.

Right now there are potentially some difficult times ahead for our family.  Oh, there’s plenty of good things going on in our lives too: we’ve got season passes to Disney again this year, we’ve got a decent amount of money in the bank at the moment, and summer camp is coming up for 2 of our 3 human children.  But I’m particularly glad for The Mother right now, because I don’t think we could make it through the tough times without her, and we’d have none of those good things without her because she’s the one who organizes all that.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to express how much we need her.  Sometimes when you try to say it, it comes out sounding insufficient.  “I really appreciate you, you know.”  “Yeah, yeah ...”  State it too simply and it sounds perfunctory.  Belabor the point too much and it sounds overblown, as if you’re trying too hard.

But perhaps this is the one day of the year when we can say—when I can say—how much she is needed without it sounding trite or overly effusive.  Perhaps this day, of all days, I can say that, without her, we would be lost, facing a gap between what we have and what we need that would threaten to overwhelm us in its immensity.  We would all be hard-pressed to dress ourselves in the morning, much less carry on living normal lives throughout the day, without her guidance, her patience, and her love.  She gives much and takes little in return.  She puts up with an inordinate amount, but she asks for very little for herself.  She’s not used to asking for help, so she just doesn’t.  She likes to provide for us, so she does.

It is my hope that I can convey to her how much she is loved and appreciated, but I fear that is beyond me.  We may have to content ourselves with these feeble annual attempts, fall short as they inevitably will, and know that we fail, year after year, but keep trying anyway, because it’s the best we can do.  I suppose we could just assume that she knows.  But it seems poor enough thanks as it is.

One day it’s possible that the right words will just fall out of the sky.  Not likely, perhaps, but possible.  Until then, we’ll have to be satisfied with a simple “thank you.”  It may be inadequate, but it’s earnest, and it’s the best we’ve got, for now.  For now, please accept our thanks, and know that our appreciation and amazement at all you do runs deeper than we can properly express.  Even when we don’t bother to try.



__________

* In a bizarre way, I suppose my local Trader Joe’s is like my own personal Cheers.









Sunday, May 7, 2017

GM Philosophy: Playstyle Matters


When starting a new D&D game, there are many things you want to get new players on the same page with, and other entries in this series have addressed several of them.  But perhaps one of the most important is to figure out what style of game you want to play.  Now, there are many different ways to categorize style of play, but I’ve come up with one that I think will make sense to everyone: you can either play a Conan-style game, or a Game-of-Thrones-style game, or a Lord-of-the-Rings style game.*

Now, to fully understand what those different styles mean in concrete terms, we should discuss what D&D’s fifth edition (affectionately known as 5e) calls the “Three Pillars of Adventure.”  From their online basic rules:

Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: exploration, social interaction, and combat.

Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.

Social interaction features the adventurers talking to someone (or something) else. It might mean demanding that a captured scout reveal the secret entrance to the goblin lair, getting information from a rescued prisoner, pleading for mercy from an orc chieftain, or persuading a talkative magic mirror to show a distant location to the adventurers.  ...

Combat ... involves characters and other creatures swinging weapons, casting spells, maneuvering for position, and so on—all in an effort to defeat their opponents, whether that means killing every enemy, taking captives, or forcing a rout. ...  Even in the context of a pitched battle, there’s still plenty of opportunity for adventurers to attempt wacky stunts like surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield, to examine the environment (perhaps by pulling a mysterious lever), and to interact with other creatures, including allies, enemies, and neutral parties.


This explicit distinction between the three different aspects of roleplaying is new for 5e.  Previous editions (and a majority of other PnP RPGs, for that matter) have been all about combat.  It’s a bit refreshing to see the other “pillars” get some love, especially if you believe as I do that roleplaying is storytelling: a good story needs some good fights, sure, but a string of constant battles glued together minimally with various other bits does not a story make.  You need a balance of all three.  But of course you can lean one way or another (or another) pretty hard.  Which brings us to the 3 styles.

A Conan-style game is all about killing things.  Recall your fondest memories of the archetypal barbarian: Conan fighting a giant serpent, Conan holding back hordes of wild Picts single-handedly, Conan using a giant sword to lop off a wizard’s head.  Oh, sure: there’s a few other bits as well—sometimes you have to fool some guards in order to get into the wizard’s tower to lop off his head, and sometimes you have to survive the dangers of the swamp where the fell beast lurks—but, generally speaking, Conan wanders around, kills things, and takes their stuff.  It’s just what he does.

Contrariwise, a Game-of-Thrones-style game is all about politics.  Think about the most iconic Westeros moments: Littlefinger saying to Ned Stark “I did warn you not to trust me,” Tyrian talking himself out of the dungeon in the Eyrie, Cersei consistently crushing her enemies without ever having to stab a single person.  Again, there will be aspects that don’t involve interaction (duels with Kingslayers, wandering around the frozen tundra beyond a giant ice wall), but mostly it’s about diplomacy, treachery, and manipulation.

Then you have the Lord-of-the-Rings style, where you know there’s going to be an epic quest with many obstacles to overcome.  The big set pieces here are things like the chase through the Mines of Moria, Sam and Frodo trying to sneak past entire armies of orcs in Moria without being seen, or Aragorn’s amazing tracking of Merry and Pippin.  In a Lord-of-the-Rings-style game, you’re certainly going to have to fight a giant spider or two, and you may have to talk some walking trees into helping you take down an evil wizard, but mostly it’s going to be about the journey and all the challenges you face along the way.

Now, one thing to note here is that each of these has a different balance among the three pillars.  For instance, say we rated the amount of each pillar in each style of game on a scale of 1 – 5.  A fully Conan-style game might be rated: Combat 5, Exploration 2, Interaction 1.  And a Game-of-Thrones-style might be: Interaction 5, Combat 3, Exploration 2.  Whereas a Lord-of-the-Rings-style might be: Exploration 4, Combat 3, Interaction 2.  At least those might be the numbers if we were trying to emulate the trope namers as closely as possible.  But of course we’re not locked into those numbers: each pillar is like a dial, and we can turn it up or down.  So, if we wanted to play a Conan-style game but with a lot more social interaction, we could change it to Combat 5 / Interaction 3 / Exploration 2.  Or say we wanted to play Lord-of-the-Rings-style but we also want to kill things more than anything else—just crank the combat up to 11, so to speak, and get Combat 5 / Exploration 4 / Interaction 2.

But now I hear you thinking, “wait a minute ... I thought a focus on combat was what defined the Conan-style.  If we crank up the combat dial on Lord-of-the-Rings-style all the way, haven’t we just turned it into a Conan-style game?”  No, not at all.  Because the focus on the different pillars turns out to be just a characteristic of the various styles; what actually defines the styles runs deeper.  The tales of Conan are a series of disconnected adventures.  Robert E. Howard once wrote:

In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.


So a Conan-style game is basically just a set of adventures whose only connection are the lead characters.  Now, they won’t “skip about” the way Conan stories do—they’ll happen in chronological order, and the characters will grow stronger and more deadly as the campaign progresses.  So, if the characters can be said to have any goal at all, it would only be personal growth: to gradually become better and better at what they do, which is mostly killing things in the classic Conan style, but could be exploration or even interaction, if we’ve twiddled the dials.

Contrast that with the Game-of-Thrones-style, where the characters have very definite goals that revolve around gaining more power and respect and influence (which is what politics is all about, really).  Most of the characters tend to do that through social interaction—Tyrian, Varys, Littlefinger, Cersei ... even Daenerys becomes quite an astute political animal as the story progresses.  Jon Snow is probably the only real exception to this rule, and even he has to learn to navigate the political waters of the Night’s Watch.  So the goals of the characters in this style of game are to gain more and more importance, eventually perhaps becoming rulers of their own kingdoms.  (Some early D&D games often focussed on this style, particularly settings like Birthright.)  Though this is most commonly achieved through interaction, you could imagine a campaign where characters amassed military might and conquered their kingdoms, or carved them out of untamed wilderness.

And the defining characteristic of a Lord-of-the-Rings-style game is the quest to defeat evil: in this type of campaign, you are assured to have an evil artifact to destroy, or an evil sorcerer to slay—or preferably both, as Frodo and the Fellowship do.  While Frodo and Sam work on getting the Ring into Mount Doom, Aragorn and Gandalf lead the main forces to Sauron’s door to confront him.  (Although note that the combat aspects of this latter confrontation are downplayed even there.)  There may be other stories along the way—one could convincingly argue that that’s exactly what The Hobbit is—but overall the entire campaign is going to seem like one overarcing storyline when you look back on it.  And that will be true even if you had to mostly kill things to defeat the great evil, or if you just had to talk it to death.

So, when we first decide to sit down and play D&D, one of the first things I want everyone to agree on is what style we’re going to play.  Are we going to go with the Conan-style, having a series of mostly disconnected adventures, probably focussed on killing things and amassing treasure?  Or perhaps we want a Game-of-Thrones-style campaign, focussing on rising to the upper echelons of nobility and perhaps even acheiving godhood, almost certainly with lots of political maneuvering and finessing?  Or would we rather see a Lord-of-the-Rings style epic quest, no doubt including solving puzzles or even crimes, wandering through or taming nature, and avoiding traps set by long-lost civilizations?  All of these things can be fun, but if we’re not all on the same page, some of us are going to be bored, and eventually disappointed.  At the very least we can set the expectations of the players appropriately: you may think constantly wandering around killing everything you encounter is boring,** but you can’t complain as much about it if you had your chance to opt out at the beginning but agreed, however reluctantly.

Thus, playstyle matters.  It matters because roleplaying is storytelling, and it happens to be shared storytelling, and all the storytellers need to be on the same page.  Otherwise we end up like those stories crafted by grade-schoolers, where each person gets to contribute a single line to the story, and the whole thing ends up being a schizophrenic mess as each narrator tries to wrest control back and force the story to go in the direction they had envisioned.  In the end, those exercises rarely produce good stories.  Because the participants didn’t agree beforehand on what type of story they were telling.  In the case of D&D, you know you’ve already agreed to a fantasy story.  But there are still several different kinds of stories that fall under that rubric, and we need to choose one.

Because, once all the players are aiming in the same direction, the net effect will be magical.



__________

* The fact that these are the top 3 things I mentioned would be likely to be in everyone’s shared experience (when talking about how roleplaying is storytelling) is no accident.

** This practice, by the way, is sometimes derogatorily referred to as being a party of ”murderhobos.”









Sunday, April 30, 2017

Down with the sickness


I had a post planned, and even started, for you this week, but the gods of plague and infection have descended upon our house, and 2 of 3 of our human children (and 1 of 3 of our feline children) are now under their sway.  After 3 days of cleaning up a number of bodily fluids (and no end in sight, if I’m to be honest), it just doesn’t seem practical that I’m going to be able to complete and polish a full post.  So, sorry for the delay, and please tune in again next week.  You know, except for the part where you shouldn’t be reading this blog at all.  But, aside from that: come back next week.  I’ll have a proper post then.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Salsatic Vibrato V

"Love's a Big Witch Doctor"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]



There are several mixes I reach for when I’m feeling happy.  But Salsatic Vibrato is almost certainly the one I reach for most often.  As such, it’s one that I’m always looking to expand on.  Here’s the latest installment.

For any mix that achieves a volume five or higher, you’re looking for the same thing: a good balance of the artists you hear from every volume, bring back some old favorites that you heard from once or twice then never again, and of course bring in some new blood to keep things fresh.  Salsatic Vibrato V does a pretty good of achieving this goal, if I do say so myself.

For the solid favorites, we of course could not do one of these without Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, who gave us 7 songs on the previous four volumes, so of course they’re back for two more.  Having thoroughly mined my favorite album of theirs,1 I’m still exporing the rest of their catalog, including returning to This Beautiful Life for “I’m Not Sleeping,” which is, despite its title, not even remotely somnolent, and going for the first time to Save My Soul, their album of New-Orleans-inspired music.  This latter album is quite possibly my least favorite outing of theirs, but even a “bad” BBVD album is still pretty damned good, and “You Know You Wrong” is a rollicking, fun tune that I couldn’t pass up.  Eight to the Bar didn’t show up until volume III, but they’ve put in a strong showing since then, with three songs in two volmes.  This time I stray for the first time past their best, Behind the Eight Ball, to bring you “Calling All Ickeroos!”  You probably don’t know what an ickeroo is.  Go listen to the song; you’ll work it out.  Similarly, Lee Press-On and the Nails showed up in volume III and have been with us ever since.  For this volume I chose one of their most upbeat tunes: “Enjoy Yourself.”  This is an old jazz standard, first showing up in 1949 performed by Guy Lombardo, and later covered by various people from Louis Prima to Bing Crosby.  LPN’s version is a pretty great one, and very emblematic of what makes them perfect for ths mix.  Plus it’s one of their few songs where it’s not either Lee or his lovely wife Leslie, but rather both.

Not really a “returning” artist, Lou Bega is actually pretty standard for this mix, although we did miss him last time out.  But now he’s back with opener “I Got a Girl,” which does a great job of setting the mood for the rest of the volume.  In the properly returning category, you may remember we hit the soundtrack to Swing way back on volume II.  Well, now Lisa Stansfield is back again with “Ain’t What You Do,” another old standard, this time all the way from 1939, once sung by Ella Fitzgerald (among others).  Stansfield’s version is upbeat and appropriately brassy.  And Koop we haven’t heard from since they named volume III for us, but they’re back as well.  “Summer Sun” is off their second album, Waltz for Koop, which is perhaps slightly less jazzy and more electro than the excellent Koop Islands, but also a bit more upbeat overall.  “Sun” is another fantasic Yukimi Nagano vocal,2 just as bright and invigorating as its name implies.  Meanwhile, we haven’t heard from Royal Crown Revue since volume II, mostly because they’re low on my personal list of retro-swing favorites.3  But they get a good one every now and again, and “Trapped (in the Web of Love)” is pretty hip.  (And, as an added bonus, it provides our volume title.)  Finally, ska greats Madness are back again with their magnificent mostly-instrumental “One Step Beyond.”  Despite basically having only 3 words,4 “One Step Beyond” is an awesome track, fully worthy of inclusion here.

When it comes to new artists, the real find here is Brass Action.  A Vancouver-based ska band, I first heard them in the very good movie Horns, based on the excellent book of the same name.5  “The Devil Down Below” (which is the song used in the movie, for obvious reasons) is a simply amazing powerhouse track that transcends the power-ska label and becomes something greater.  “Chicken House,” their track on the second half of the volume, is not as strong (few things are), but it’s a solid effort that really helps elevate the long run of ska tunes.

In the unsurprising category, we need some electro-swing, no?  Instead of Caravan Palace, I went with Austrian electronica artist Parov Stelar’s best effort in that vein, “Jimmy’s Gang.”  It’s a bright, poppy instrumental that really highlights that subgenre.  It’s also no shock to see Meaghan Smith here finally: after hearing her on Moonside by Riverlight, Sirenexiv Cola, and Slithy Toves, we surely knew that all that brass had to lead her here eventually.  “If You Asked Me” is one of the most upbeat tracks off the insanely good Cricket’s Orchestra and works perfectly between LPN and BBVD.

Probably the best part about this volume, though, is the combination of two runs, glued together by Combustible Edison’s half-minute instrumental break, another short piece from the Four Rooms soundtrack.6  The first, shorter, run is only two songs, but two songs of great jazzy-hip-hop.  First we have our centerpiece, the classic “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” by Us3.  Released within a year of Digable Planets’ “Cool Like Dat” and of a very similar style,7 some people think of “Cantaloop” as a bit of a rip-off.  But it was the (slightly) bigger hit, and, honestly, I just like it better.8  I follow that up with Mocean Worker, another artist I discovered via LittleBigPlanet.9  The son of a well-known jazz and R&B producer,10 Mocean Worker (“mocean” rhymes with “ocean,” by the way) is a DJ who is probably just as famous for doing remixes as for putting out original work.  Almost all of the latter is instrumental, and “Swagger” is my absolute favorite: infectious, groovy in the fullest sense of the word, and just happy-making.

Then, after the bridge, we kick off a 4-song ska run, which makes this the most ska-drenched volume yet.11  We kick it off with the hardy power-ska of the Interrupters, who seem to be desperately trying to resurrect the glory days of the subgenre, headed by acts like Rancid and Goldfinger, some 15 years later.  “Take Back the Power” is easily their best, and it’ll reach out and grab ya by the throat.  Then on through the Madness tune and finishing up with the second Brass Action tune.

And then we have “2-6-5-8-0,” which leads me to ruminate on the vast difference an ocean can make.  On one side of the Atlantic, Kim Wilde is known as a one-hit wonder for her undeniably catchy “Kids in America.”  On the other, she’s something of a mega-pop star, with 25 hits in Britain’s top 50 (17 in the top 40 in the 80’s alone), several #1 songs in France, and top 10 hits in Germany, Belgium, and Scandinavia.  She got a Brit Award (Britain’s Grammy) in 1983, and holds the record for most charted British female solo act.12  Her debut Kim Wilde is actually quite a good album, unlike some of those release in the 80’s which are 80% filler and 20% pop hit.  I’ve owned it, off and on, for probably 20 years or more.  Not one of my all-time favorites, but a nice listen nonetheless.  The track I’m using here has a kickin’ brass section and an almost (but not quite) ska feel that nevertheless earns its penultimate spot in this volume’s ska run.


Salsatic Vibrato V
    [Love's a Big Witch Doctor]


        “I Got a Girl” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “Ain't What You Do” by Lisa Stansfield, off Swing [Soundtrack]
        “Enjoy Yourself” by Lee Press-On and the Nails, off El Bando en Fuego!
        “If You Asked Me” by Meaghan Smith, off The Cricket's Orchestra
        “You Know You Wrong” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Save My Soul
        “The Devil Down Below” by The Brass Action, off Making Waves
        “Calling All Ickeroos!” by Eight to the Bar, off Calling All Ickeroos
        “Flame Is Love” by The Presidents of the United States of America, off These Are the Good Times People
        “Heard Somebody Cry” by Oingo Boingo, off Dead Man's Party
        “Weird to Be Back” by Firewater, off The Golden Hour
        “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” by Us3, off Hand on the Torch
        “Swagger” by Mocean Worker, off Candygram for Mowo!
        “The Earthly Diana” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
        “Take Back the Power” by The Interrupters, off The Interrupters
        “One Step Beyond” by Madness, off Complete Madness [Compilation]
        “2-6-5-8-0” by Kim Wilde, off Kim Wilde
        “Chicken House” by The Brass Action, off Making Waves
        “Jimmy's Gang” by Parov Stelar, off The Princess
        “Summer Sun” by Koop, off Waltz for Koop
        “I'm Not Sleepin'” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off This Beautiful Life
        “Trapped (In the Web of Love)” by Royal Crown Revue, off Walk on Fire
        “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire, off Greatest Hits [Compilation]
   
Total:  22 tracks,  75:23


Leading into our centerpiece is a three-song run of fairly unexpected candidates.  “Brass” doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you think of the Presidents of the United States of America—who are most well known for hardcore silliness, like “Lump” and “Peaches”—but “Flame Is Love” is a major departure for them that lands squarely in this mix’s bailiwick: it’s a kickass tune with plenty of brassy joy to go around.  Then we have Oingo Boingo, who often feature brass in their tunes, but are still not often suitable for this mix.13  “Heard Somebody Cry,” off their ferociously good album Dead Man’s Party, is probably a bit of a stretch here, but it’s upbeat enough, and plus I really like it.  Finally, Firewater, who we’ve seen on such wildly different mixes as Slithy Toves and Porchwell Firetime, can do brassy and upbeat with the best of ’em, and this one (“Weird to Be Back”) is pretty damned good.

Our closer this time is a genre I haven’t mined before, I don’t think: funk.  Not sure why it took me so long to get around to it, but, if you’re looking for happy, brass-oriented music, you eventually have to come to Earth, Wind & Fire, and so we have.  EW&F have quite a few tracks that would work well, but I decided to start simple, with “Shining Star.”  It’s an upbeat tune with a positive message, and I figured that was a perfect way to close this one out.


Next time around, it think it’s finally time to release my most hard-edged, uptempo mix ever.


Salsatic Vibrato VI




__________

1 That was Americana Deluxe, you may recall.

2 Nagano sang background on “Forces ... Darling” from volume III of this mix as well as lead on “Come to Me,” which we saw on Moonside by Riverlight.

3 Although they’re very popular in general within that community.  I often say that they’re the most popular retro-swing band that the general public has never heard of.

4 “Basically” is a word which here means “not counting the silly spoken-word intro.”

5 In the book, Iggy Perrish’s brother plays trumpet for a late-night show’s band; in the movie, apparently he plays trumpet for the Brass Action.

6 We saw two others of those on Phantasma Chorale I.

7 I suppose movies aren’t the only things that sometimes come in pairs.

8 Which is not to say that we’ll never see Digable Planets show up on this mix, because, most likely, we will.

9 Although we haven’t gotten around to him on Paradoxically Sized World yet.  But we will.  In the fullness of time.

10 Well, well-known if you’re in the biz anyway.

11 Which hopefully makes up for the lack of Latin influence this time out: there’s nothing even salsa-adjacent on this particular volume.  Sorry if that was your favorite part.  We’ll get back to it next volume.  Promise.

12 All info from her Wikipedia article.

13 So far we’ve only heard them on Totally Different Head, due to their strong new wave tendencies.









Sunday, April 16, 2017

Heart Too Full


We’re just 11 days shy of being 3 years on from the last time I wrote about my middle child’s heart condition.  Today I’m revisiting the topic because we just got some news from his doctor.  In that last post, I wrote:

The doctors estimated that my son’s heart wouldn’t last much more than a week with the stenosis.  With the regurgitation, it could last years, perhaps even decades.

It could last that long ... but perhaps it won’t.  ... your stress level goes through six-month cycles of peaking to insane levels because you dread that this time is the time when they’ll finally tell you he needs the surgery.


Well, it seems that time is drawing nearer.

That previous post was spurred by the occasion of the Smaller Animal’s first treadmill test.  This week he had his third or fourth (I’m starting to lose track, honestly).  Then he was 8; now he’s 11.  On the plus side, he finally got up to 4.2mph at a 16% grade, for the first time ever, and he still did not have trouble breathing.  When the nurse asked him why he stopped, he said his legs just got tired, which of course happens to everyone.  However, his blood pressure reading were a bit scary.  Prior to the test, he clocked in at 120 over 60, which is perfectly normal ... for a 30-year-old man.  For someone his age, it’s a bit high, although I didn’t really register that until the doctor mentioned it the following day.  But I couldn’t miss the fact that, just after the test, he was reading 112 over 38.  Now, let me stress that I’ve seen a lot of blood pressure readings in my life—not as many as someone in the actual medical profession, of course, but many more than the average, non-medical person.  I did time in the ER as part of my EMT training when I was (much) younger, and, when you’re the low man on the totem pole in the ER, taking people’s blood pressures is about all they let you do.  So I took a lot of blood pressures then, and I’ve observed a lot (in my family, I’m generally the person forced to go along because my mother taught me to speak medicalese).1  And, in all those blood pressures, I never saw a diastolic reading2 that low.  Hell, I wasn’t even really aware it ever went that low.  After resting on the table while they did the ECG,3 he registered 102 over 50, which was an improvement, but still I was mildly troubled about that 38.

As it turns out, his doctors were too.  The following day, his pediatric cardiologist called us and let us know that it was time for us to start talking to cardiac surgeons.  Just talking, mind you: it’s still possible they might say that, at his age, they’d prefer to wait before scheduling the surgery.  But it’s also possible that they might say that the risk of waiting outweighs the risk of doing the surgery sooner.  And I could go on and talk more about the advances in cardiac catheterization,4 or the details of the Ross procedure, but you’ll just have to go back and review that last post, if you haven’t already.  Right now I’m having difficulty focussing on the technical issues, even though that’s what I generally prefer to do.  The technical issues of medicine are something I can get my brain around.  My mother always wanted me to be a doctor—even though that’s primarily because her father wanted to have a boy who grew up to be a doctor and I just inherited the vicarious lifeplans—and I seriously considered it for a good deal of my early adult life.  But though I found it interesting, I didn’t have the passion for it that I would need to push me through medical school, and residency, and that whole grueling process.  But I understood the basics of it just fine, and I never minded the blood or other bodily fluids, and I always thought the idea of cutting people open and rooting around inside them was not at all gross but utterly fascinating, so the mechanics of medicine is something I understand and am comfortable with and usually try to focus on.  But sometimes it’s difficult.

When our middle child was born, we had about 48 hours to just relax and be happy with him, until the whole heart issue blew up, metaphorically speaking, and took over our lives for the next several weeks.  And then it was okay again—well, as okay as it can be, with something like that hanging over your head, but surprisingly you really can put it out of your mind and get on with life.  Which we did, for the next neary eleven years, until this week.  Now it’s very difficult not to fall back into that time of feeling like you don’t know what will happen, and you don’t know what’s going on, and you don’t know how life will keep going, and you’re just afraid.

I suppose it’s possible to look at it like it’s crueler this way: if anything happens to him during the surgery, we will all be much more devastated than we would have been if we’d lost him early, as devastating as that would have been.  But back then he was mostly potential: there is a very visceral connection that you feel to your child which forms as you watch them being born, and you know instantly that you would die for them even though they’re just this sort of messy, uncoordinated, chubby, crying blob of trouble and poop and lost sleep at this point.  But you sense the potential nonetheless ... you know that, one day, this will be a fully-formed human being with their own opinions and distastes and joys, and they will look up at you, and they will resent you sometimes, and they will be embarrassed by you sometimes, and they will be royally pissed at you sometimes, but in many ways—the most important ways—you will be their everything, and they will be yours.  You sense that ... but it’s just a feeling.  By the time you’ve had them hanging around for 11 years, the potential is realized.  There’s no more wondering who they’ll turn out to be: by now, you have a really good idea.  You know their faults, and their weaknesses, and their stubborn streaks.  And you know their power, and their strength, and their love.  This child, I’ve played Rescue Heroes and Imaginext with, and LittleBigPlanet, and The Legend of Zelda, and Heroscape, and D&D.  I’ve watched him put together complex creations out of Legos, and Magna-Tiles, and blocks in Minecraft, and those electronic projects where you snap components on the board and make the fan turn on, or the speaker buzz, or the light bulb light up.  I’ve seen him off to summer camp,5 off to work with horses, off to ride roller coasters, off to swim in the ocean and countless pools.  I’ve slept with him snuggled up under me, and I’ve groaned as he continued to climb up into my lap long after he was way too big for that.  I’ve introduced him to Red Dwarf and Dinosaurs and Mystery Science Theater 3000 and even The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.  Today I hid 12 eggs for him that he had a hell of a time finding and then I hugged him and didn’t have to bend down at all, because in another year or so he’ll be just as tall as I am.

So while one might argue that it’s crueler this way, I instead choose to look at it differently: I’m lucky to have had what I’ve gotten so far.  If the universe or whatever higher power runs it continues to bless me, I’ll continue to be lucky and I’ll have even more experiences that I will treasure.  But, no matter what happens, I’ve had 11 years of amazing interaction with an amazing kid who has enriched my life, and the lives of all of us here in this family, and I couldn’t imagine having missed out on that.

The next few weeks and months may end up being a scary time for us.  I can’t say for sure how everyone will get through it.  However, I’m personally going to trydifficult as it may be, I’m going to try very hard—to concentrate on all the ways that my life is better because of my son, and how lucky I’ve been to know him.  That will be my focus, if I can manage it.  And there’s a lot of it to contemplate.



__________

1 Not The Mother, that is, but my own mother, who was a nurse (and CPR instructor) for most of her adult life.

2 The diastolic is the second number.  The first number is the systolic.

3 That’s the echocardiogram, which you may recall from last post.

4 We will also be talking with a specialist in that along with the surgeons.

5 We are lucky enough to live in the area served by Camp del Corazon, a summer camp specifically for kids with heart conditions that is staffed in part by pediatric cardiologists.









Sunday, April 9, 2017

Saladosity, Part 8: Some Condiments, You Just Want to Buy


[This is the eighth post in a long series.  You may wish to start at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]


In our quest to make the perfect salads, there’s still more shopping to do.  When it comes to condiments, we’re going to make a lot of them ourselves: mayonnaise, pickle relish, and most of the actual salad dressings.  But that doesn’t mean we’re going to make everything from scratch.  Remember: our #1 goal is to make making salads easy.  So if I tell you that you have to start growing your own mustard seed or whatever, that’s not easy.  So we’re going to make things ourselves where it’s simple to do so, and/or where it’s easier than trying to find quality condiments in your local store.  Where that’s not feasible, though, we will not hesitate one whit to just buy the stuff.  We’re eating good, and we’re eating simple.  Buying a few premade items is not going to endanger that.

Salad Dressings

Yes, there are actually a (very) few salad dressings that I like to buy intead of make.  Specifically, two: a feta cheese dressing, and a Tuscan dressing.

Now, both of these come from my local Trader Joe’s,* and they are (not at all coincidentally) the only two dressings that I’ve found there that have neither 1) soybean oil, nor 2) any added sweeteners.  If you’re avoiding dairy due to strict paleo/Whole30-ness, then the feta cheese dressing is out.  The Tuscan, however, should be good for all the nutritional tribes.

Now, remember I said  last time that, if you buy bleu cheese crumbles, you don’t actually need bleu cheese dressing?  This was a little bit of a white lie: you don’t need a dressing which is bleu cheese specifically, but what you do still need is a dressing which is creamy, and not strongly flavored so it won’t compete with the natural piquancy of the bleu cheese.  TJ’s feta dressing is exactly that.  You could try other varieties—I think a ranch would be too much, plus you’re never going to find ranch dressing without added sugars, but there could well be other options at your disposal.  Mainly you just want no crappy soybean oil, and hopefully no sugar (in any of its myriad forms).  TJ’s feta dressing has olive oil and canola oil (not the best, but better than soybean, corn, or peanut), and no sweeteners at all.  It doesn’t taste strongly of feta either, despite the name, and it’s a perfect complement for a bleu cheese salad.

Tuscan dressing, on the other hand, is just a slight step up from Italian (meaning it’s not much more than oil and vinegar).  The oil in this case is sunflower (good) “and/or” canola (less good, but still not awful).  The vinegar is balsamic.  And the “step up” is tomatoes and “spices” that edge it more towards tasting a bit like Worcestershire sauce, or maybe steak sauce without the sweetness.  It’s very tart, in fact, so I advise you use it in small quantities, which means it has a built-in mechanism to keep you from overindulging.  And, if you’re in the calorie-counter tribe, it’s only 50 calories per tablespoon, so that works out well all ‘round.  When we make our Tuscan salad, I’ll show you how to balance out that tartness in a very pleasant way.

Mustard

You know, mustard is some kind of friggin’ miracle food.  It contains no sugar, no carbs, and no fat; brown mustard has 5 calories per teaspoon and yellow mustard has zero.  At least that what my mustard bottles tell me—and guess where I bought ’em?—and, if yours are telling you a different story, toss ’em out and go shoppping for better options.  On top of all that, it’s seriously yummy, and it helps things emulsify (crucial when we get around to making our own mayonnaise).  About the only thing even remotely objectionable is that some forms of brown mustard (dijon, poupon, etc) may contain white wine, which some nutritional tribes (e.g. Whole30) may prohibit.  But that’s easy enough to work around.

You will need yellow mustard for sure, and brown mustard probably.  My particular yellow mustard happens to be organic, but I’m not sure I can taste the difference there, honestly.  But I don’t think there even is a non-organic version, and it’s still cheap enough, so why not?  My choice of brown mustard happens not to have any wine, but honestly I wouldn’t care if it did—that’s one of the Whole30 precepts that I tossed out the window a long time ago.

Ketchup

Now, the first thing I learned about ketchup when I started this whole journey was that it’s impossible to make ketchup without adding something to sweeten it.  If you don’t add some form of sugar, you just end up with thinned out tomato sauce, which is definitively not ketchup.  If you happen to be really seriously into Whole30, you’re probably already aware that there’s a company out there that makes ketchup using dates, which, being fruit and technically not an added “sweetener,” makes it Whole30-safe.  I’ve never tried it, but then I’m not that seriously into Whole30, so your mileage may vary.  You can also try making your own ketchup, but trust me when I tell you that it is a) a huge pain in the ass, and b) never ends up tasting particularly like ketchup.  As far as I’m concerned, ketchup springs into existence at some magical spring, probably underneath Teresa Heinz Kerry’s house.  Just buy the stuff.  Buy only the stuff that’s made with “organic cold-pressed raw cane juice” or whatever if you must, but honestly: it won’t make that much difference.

We’re going to use ketchup to make a version of a Thousand Islands dressing, and that is literally it.  Other than that, I never touch the stuff.  But Thousand Islands is pretty crucial for many things, particularly chef’s salad.

Vinegar

Now, many people absolutely adore vinegar.  I am not one of them.  For many years, I was convinced that I hated all vinegar.  Red wine vinegar I really don’t like, and apple cider vinegar I detest.  Balsamic vinegar I tolerate, but I’m not a huge fan.  However, I recognize that some recipes really need vinegar, both for its acidic qualities and its sour tang.  And I eventually discovered that white wine vinegar is pretty decent ... I’m not about to start drinking it straight or anything, but it’ll be a crucial component for at least one of our dressings.

The white wine vinegar I buy is called “white balsamic,” which I find oxymoronic.  Also its cheap price leads me to distrust the “balsamic” part, which I believe got thrown in there just to make it sound fancy.  The ingredient list is nice and short, but it’s not organic.  Still very good though.

Honey

When it comes to honey, what you really should be doing is buying local.  Find a farm or something like that nearby that sells honey made by local bees from local flowers.  Many people believe that eating local honey helps boost your immune system, but, even if you don’t buy that, it’s still a valid point that you should be helping to keep your local apiaries solvent, who in turn keep colonies of bees thriving, and I don’t think there’s very many people who actually think the recent decreases in bee populations are a good thing.

We have a local place that both bottles their own honey and also gets some varities imported, so they have a great selection.  You can even go there and do a honey-tasting.  Different kinds of honey absolutely taste different, so experiment to find out what works for you.

For our purposes, we’re going to use it to make our own honey mustard dressing.  For the most part, the crap that you have been buying—probably to give to your kids for their chicken nuggets—is not very good.  If you’ve found anything that tastes good (like, say, Ken’s), then it’s full of crap (like, say, soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, which are the first two ingredients on that delicious bottle of Ken’s).  Contrariwise, if you found anything whose ingredient list delighted you, you almost certainly were insanely disappointed by the underwhelming taste (like, say, the Sprouts store brand).  Well, as it turns out, making your own honey mustard is not so hard, plus you get to tweak it: perhaps you like yours sweeter, or tangier, or creamier, or whatever.

So start by buying yourself some nice honey.  I prefer a sweeter variety for this purpose: perhaps an orange blossom, or a nice clover.  But get whatever you personally like.



Next time, we’ll finish  up the refrigerated portion of our shopping.



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* You may recall that I’m pretty much a walking TJ’s commercial.









Sunday, April 2, 2017

Birthday movie reviews


It’s the second (and final, obvioiusly) installment of our March birthday season, so you won’t get a proper post from me.  But I thought I would treat you to a few brief reviews of my cinematic adventures for the weekend.  Without further ado, here’s my

Reviews of Movies for 5-Year-Olds

The Secret Life of Pets  We saw this back when it first became available to rent from Amazon, and both my then-4-year-old and my then 10-year-old watched it nearly continuously until our 48-hour rental was up.  So naturally we had to buy it for the little one for her birthday.  So naturally we had to watch it again.

I have to say it held up pretty well on second viewing: a lot of these sorts of movies don’t.  But I still laughed in several spots, even though I knew what was coming.  Good voice talents, good animation, interesting storyline.  I object to a bit of species-ism—you know exactly which breed of dog every canine is, but all the lizards are some weird amalgam of whatever saurian traits the animators felt like that day—but that’s a minor nitpick.  There’s really only one musical break, and it’s so highly amusing that I let it slide.  Gidget (voiced by the ever-funny Jenny Slate) is my girl’s new hero, and she not only got the DVD but also a physical manifestation of the sassy buttkicker.

Birthday girl’s review: I liked it.

Sing  So let me stress right up front that I despise musicals.  The vast majority of even the best Disney movies are just very short stories with lots of extended bathroom breaks.  So I was a little leery of this one.  However, interestingly enough, Sing is not really a musical.  A musical is a movie where people randomly break into song for no discernable reason.  However, Sing is about a singing contest, so every single time someone broke into song in it, there was a perfectly logical reason for it.  That said, it is true that not all the music was interesting to me—I don’t particularly care for Katy Perry, or Lady Gaga, or Taylor Swift—but there was enough to keep my mildly entertained: Frank Sinatra is tolerable, and I don’t hate Elton John.  And the punky stuff sung by Scarlett Johansson’s porcupine was pretty decent.  I found it weird that, of the five main singing animals in the film, four were voiced by actors, not singers (and the fifth was a singer that I personally had never heard of), and a bit disappointing that all of them were very extremely white.  But the story was engaging, the emotional notes were fairly restrained, and the acting was good, even Matthew McConaughey.  I felt some of the comedy was a bit over-the-top, but it was passable.

Birthday girl’s review: I liked it also.

The Boss Baby  Finally, the one movie we actually trekked out to the theater to see: Boss Baby was easily the best of the bunch.  Perhaps it was just that I wasn’t particuarly expecting much, but I really enjoyed it.  The commercials make it appear to be pretty much a one-joke movie, but it really wove a lot of different elements together and presented a story that was funny, fantastical, a bit of a caper story, and surprisingly touching at the end.  Also, no musical breaks, which is always a plus.  The voice acting was also the best of the three.  Alec Baldwin has this reputation for being a giant pain in the ass to work with, but I always find his comedy roles to be so good ... I mean, how much of a douchebag can he be and still be that funny?  Okay, sure: most of his funniness comes from overplaying douchebag characters, but, even if he’s only playing himself over and over again, at least he can laugh at himself, right?  Also, the unheard-of voice actor doing that Ian McKellan impression was spot on.  I really enjoyed that alarm clock.

Birthday girl’s review: I also liked it.  I liked everything that we watched!

Bonus review  The birthday girl also specifically wanted me to mention “the demons.”  This weekend she embarked on a rewatch of Crazyhead.  Which I definitely do not recommend you let your 5-year-old watch, just on general principle, but perhaps yours is as precocious and atypical as mine.  My little girl particularly digs kickass women taking down monsters with equal parts funny and creepy, such as the new version of Ghostbusters (which is another thing she watches over and over again), and Crazyhead certainly hits that note.  I can hardly wait to introdue her to Buffy.  So, while you might not want to let your kids watch it, you might find it pretty enjoyable for your own viewing.  And she specifically asked me to mention it, so now I have.


Next week, back to our regularly scheduled blogcast.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Numeric Driftwood III

"Shadows Fall So Blue"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]



Our third volume of music to drift off to dreamland to doesn’t stray too far from the template set in the previous two volumes ... which I think we can construe as a good thing.  Just as before, we’re hearing from Anjey Satori, Kitaro, and the Angels of Venice—who provide our opener this time around, “Awake Inside a Dream”—although only one track each this volume.  David Darling also returns from volume II, this time with the title track off his even mellower album Cello Blue.  And while our first volume had Siouxise singing the song that Kaa sings to Mowgli in Disney’s Jungle Book, this volume sees Better Midler give us a take on the song Dumbo’s mother sings to him in Dumbo.  And, in one final echo of volume II, this volume also ends with two consecutive vocal tracks: “Baby Mine” is followed by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s uncharacterically soporific “Sleep Tight.”  It’s a nice way to end: two pretty lullabies to help make sure you’re solidly somnolent.

But this volume also brings us a lot of new artists, including some of my favorite albums to drift off to.  Enigma finally makes an appearance here, with “Callas Went Away,” which is probably the most restful of the tunes off their classic debut album MCMXC a.D.  The rest of that album is good, no doubt, but it’s not as apt to actually put you to sleep as what I generally look for in this mix.  Another of my favorite albums to just chill out with is the soundtrack from Twin Peaks, by Angelo Badalamenti, with occasional vocals from Julee Cruise, such as the track I’m using here, “Into the Night.”  “Into the Night” is a curious tune, because while it’s super-mellow for 95% of its just-under-5-minutes’ running time, it does have an unexpected crescendo towards the end which might actually wake you up if you’re not expecting it.  That’s probably the reason it took so long to land on this mix, to be honest.  But, in the end, I felt that that one moment couldn’t completely negate its appropriateness here.  Besides: once you know it’s there, it rapidly loses its power to shake up your consciousness.  And, if nothing else, I put it fairly early in the tracklist so there’s a decent chance you’re not quite asleep yet.  Plus it handily provides our volume title, so it’s sort of crucial to the volume.

Another of my favorite mellow bands is the Blue Nile.  Like Enigma, most of their music is relaxing but not quite sleep-inducing, but every now and again they hit the jackpot.  While “From a Late Night Train” has a gentle, pining quality that almost qualifies it for Wisty Mysteria,1 it’s also soothing in a strange way that I can’t fully describe.  It makes a nice transition into our middle stretch, and also means that there’s four fully vocal tracks, as well as two others with a few breathy, whispered words,2 which is a new record for this mix.

There’s also more proper new age on this volume than on previous installments—perhaps even more than on any other mix volume I’ve done so far.  Besides Kitaro and Satori, who we can definitively say are new age, and Angels of Venice, who we might dabble with describing as “neoclassical” before admitting that, yeah, they’re pretty new-age-y, we also have Anugama, Torben Thøger, and Hilary Stagg, who form a 4-song block with David Darling wedged firmly in the middle.3  Anugama we’ve heard from before, on Shadowfall Equinox; he’s a German musician who spent many years in Asia absorbing meditative music.  “Shaku Sunset” is a perfect example of that influence: it has a gentle East Asian feel, and fades away into the chirping of crickets, which transitions beautifully into “Cello Blue,” which kicks off with chirping birds.  The overall effect is that of a pre-dawn morning.  Then “Cello Blue”‘s chirping birds flow into the babbling brook of “A Wonderful Place.”  Torben Thoger is a Danish composer and filmmaker; most of his work I find a little too new-age-y, but “A Wonderful Place” is really beautiful, even though at over 13 minutes, it’s the longest track on this mix (or, again, quite possibly on any of my mixes).  But I make special allowances here: this type of music is one of the few places where very long tracks can actually serve the purpose well.4  But assuming you’re still awake after nearly 13½ minutes of the calming soundtrack that accompanies the running water, that fades nicely into the sublime harp of Stagg.  Hilary Stagg was an electrician inspired to take up the harp after attending a concert by Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider, and he soon created a unique harp style that combines electrical amplification and lucid dreaming.  Again, Stagg is often way too new age for my tastes, but “Drifting Toward a Dream” is a pretty perfect example of how good he can be when he’s on.


Numeric Driftwood III
    [Shadows Fall So Blue]


        “Awake Inside a Dream” by Angels of Venice, off Awake Inside a Dream
        “The Mist” by Kitaro, off India
        “Night Surround” by Anjey Satori, off For Relaxation
        “Into the Night” by Angelo Badalamenti, off Twin Peaks [Soundtrack]
        “From a Late Night Train” by The Blue Nile, off Hats
        “Callas Went Away” by Enigma, off MCMXC a.D.
        “Shaku Sunset” by Anugama, off The Lightness of Being [Compilation]
        “Cello Blue” by David Darling, off Cello Blue
        “A Wonderful Place” by Torben Thøger, off Akasha
        “Drifting Toward a Dream” by Hilary Stagg, off Dream Spiral
        “Floating On” by Koushik, off Out My Window 5
        “Grace” by Beth Quist, off Silver
        “Baby Mine” by Bette Midler, off Beaches [Soundtrack]
        “Sleep Tight” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off This Beautiful Life
   
Total:  14 tracks,  76:57


Which only leaves us with two tracks.  Beth Quist we’ve seen before on other mixes,6 but this is her first appearance here.  “Grace” is a track off her first album, Silver, and exemplifies what make her great: middle-Eastern-influenced music, and her wordless vocals are just another instrument, and one with magnificent range.  This is more relaxing than most of her oeuvre, which is of course why it fits in so nicely here.

And leading into Quist is a short bridge from Indian-Canadian electronica artist Koushik.  “Floating On”7 is exactly what it says on the tin: a short, floating melody that carries us gracefully from the transcendent harp of Stagg to the otherworldly voice of Quist.


Next time, we’ll wake back up with another installment of getting down to brass tactics.


Numeric Driftwood IV




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1 A mix which we shall come to in the fullness of time, of course.

2 That would be the Enigma, of course, and the Angels of Venice track, perhaps a bit surprisingly.

3 And we could probably describe Darling as new age too, if we’re being honest.

4 The other place being Shadowfall Equinox.

5 On some versions of this album, including the one I’m linking you to, “Floating On” is listed as “Flying On.”  But it’s the same song.

6 On Smokelit Flashback IV and V, as well as Sirenexiv Cola I and Paradoxically Sized World IV.

7 Or, on some versions of Out My Window, “Flying On.”