My Week That Was, 13 Jan 2017

Due to a SNAFU at the graduate book store, I’m still waiting for my books for this course. We’re already in the third week and I don’t have my books. There have been workarounds for other books, but I really need Breaking Al-Qaeda: Psychological and Operational Techniques, which is also a book I’m very interested to read. It’s supposed to arrive Monday, and then I need to read ten chapters and make comments by Thursday. It’s going to be a busy week.

I’m still reading The Shield of the Great Leader: the Armed Forces of North Korea, but I’m also working my way through Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy. So far, I’m quite enjoying it, but I haven’t encountered anything yet that is surprising or new – and I probably shouldn’t expect anything. Still, it’s a good read and a good review.

Another session of Nor’Westers (Western tropes set in the Canadian fur trade in 1810) is happening on Tuesday, so I have reviewed what has gone before and prepped for the next session. I’m also struggling to decide if I want to Kickstart Sword’s Edge RPG in order to afford editing and indexing. It would have to be very hands-off and probably electronic rewards only, but it would be nice to get both professionally done.

I’m almost done my fiction commission. I need about 500-750 good words to wrap it up and time is running out.

My favourite podcast this week was Empire’s Rogue One spoiler special which included an interview with Gareth Edwards. There was a wide range of opinions about how the movie could have been better, but all the critics agreed that they enjoyed the movie, which aligns with my thoughts.

I hope you had an enjoyable week!

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My Week That Was, 06 Jan 2017

For my course, I’m working my way through Michael Bennett and Edward Walt’s Counterdeception: Principles and Applications for National Security. So far, I am not enthralled, but it does have a great overview of deception theory and thinkers.

I’m also reading The Shield of the Great Leader: the Armed Forces of North Korea by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. which came out in 2001. The Korean People’s Army has surely changed dramatically since then, however it is great for historical knowledge, as a snapshot in time, and still certainly has a lot of validity as much of the information – especially structurally – is still relevant.

I started a new campaign for one of my RPG groups in Ottawa. We’re using Sword’s Edge to run a high fantasy game set in a second world based on Koryo-era Korea. The character creation and first session went quite well.

I’m also having a hard time with my fiction commission. What should be the easiest part has turned out to be the hardest as I am having a hard time moving the characters into the final position. I’m trying to make it flow with everything that has come before, but my brain isn’t playing nice. I’m going to take another crack at it tonight.

I’m slowly working my way through the Fall of Rome podcasts and am on episode 6, which talks about the fall of Roman Britain.

That’s all for now. I want to use my time to pound away at the commission, which is almost complete.

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My Week That Was, 23 Dec 2016

A little bit late, but I did finally get my thoughts for Rogue One out.

I’m working on a final paper for one of my courses, and I’ve been reading a lot about North Korea’s missile program. Two great places to go if you are interested in North Korea’s WMDs is 38 North and Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk. Lots of great information from academics who follow North Korea and/or proliferation.

I only barely touched on Virtual Light as I am looking at re-reading William Gibson’s SF works. Pattern Recognition comes much later.

I’ve been working on a fiction commission, so have only minimally worked on gaming stuff, but I have the notes down for a straight-up heroic fantasy game I’m going to be running for the Ottawa Warband, and I’ve started sketching out an adventure to introduce some co-workers to RPGs.

For podcasts, I’m two episodes into the Fall of Rome and am a huge fan. The host doesn’t have the same light levity of the History of Rome, but it is early in the game. Still, the information provided is outstanding. Even the discussion of what is meant by the “fall of Rome” in the introductory episode is fantastic for getting to understand the intricacies of Roman politics, culture, and economy. Really, I can see this becoming my main podcast, just as the History of Rome was. Strongly recommended.

I had a couple of hours of gaming last night once my brain turned off, and I’ve revisited GTA IV. I really like the story even though I am absolute suck at the actual game. I really like the story of Niko Bellic and his travails in America.

I hope everyone is enjoying the season. We celebrate secular Christmas at my house, but sending love out to everyone who celebrates something religious this season.

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Rogue One, I Think I Love You

Okay, so it’s Christmas morning and I have a bit of time, so let’s talk about Rogue One.

This first part will be spoiler-free for those who haven’t yet seen the movie yet. The second part will include spoilers as I want to address a couple of criticisms of the movie with which I don’t agree. It’s not that this movie is perfect, but it is amazing.

And that’s the bottom line – this is the best Star Wars movie to come out since the Empire Strikes Back. It has issues, but these are pretty much the same issues that all the Star Wars movies share. There are plot holes and postage-stamp-sized character arcs, but these are nestled in an exciting, kinetic intergalactic adventure that swept me up in such a way that its flaws weren’t apparent until I started reading others’ considerations of the movie.

Without getting too deeply into the story and outcome, this is a much darker Star Wars movie than any that have come before it. Part of this is the decision to get more realistic with the characterization of the Rebel Alliance itself, but also with those involved in it. It is also an espionage movie that leads into a war movie, and this is not what Star Wars had presented earlier. It’s not a war movie because it has battles, it is a war movie because it takes the combat seriously, and tries its best to present combat scenes that stay true to the fantasy of Star Wars. This has always been a part of Star Wars, from the attacks on the Death Stars/Starkiller Base to the battle on Hoth (I am ignoring the prequels, which is the only way that I can maintain my sanity and fandom). It’s the seriousness and sincerity of the battle scenes in Rogue One that sets it apart.

I more or less loved all the main characters/main supporting. I like Jyn’s character arc (and more on that in the spoilers section), I thought Cassian was the first time we saw what a real rebel operative might be like, but my heart was torn between Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe and Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO. Yen has provided, bar none, the finest warrior ever viewed in a Star Wars movie. That’s understandable, considering Yen’s background. What I wasn’t expecting was the sincerity of his performance as a religious warrior, a knight of the Force who is not a Jedi. His faith was presented incredibly well, and his character was well-rounded and performed. Really, Yen blew my socks off.

For K-2SO, I expected a lot from Alan Tudyk, given how much I loved his characters in Firefly/Serenity, A Knight’s Tale, and Tucker & Dale vs Evil. He completely delivered and his dry wit added levity to the action. He was also pretty bad-ass. The droids always get to steal the show, and K-2SO keeps up that tradition thanks to its personification by Mr. Tudyk.

Again, this is not a perfect movie. There are plot holes, some sketched rather than fully-realized characterizations, but I completely overlooked these during the actual viewing because I was so involved in the movie.

I give Rogue One 4.75 reprogrammed religious Imperial monk enforcer warrior droids out of 5. This is not a perfect movie, but it is an amazing Star Wars movie and gave me exactly what I wanted.

You can find more information about Rogue One from Wikipedia and IMDB.

And now . . .

Here there be . . .

Spoilers!

Fear them . . .

Ready? . . .

Here we go.

Okay, so there are some comments about the plot holes in Rogue One, and they do exist. Especially because there were substantial re-shoots of an altered script which means a changed story which might not match up entirely. Again, this has been an issue with Star Wars right from the beginning, when the Imperials don’t fire on an escape pod because there are no lifeforms to Boba Fett apparently knowing the Millennium Falcon is hiding on a star destroyer and waiting for them to escape to Cloud City to actually try to capture them. Heck, Yoda is telling Luke he can’t face Vader in ESB, but when Luke returns to Dagobah suddenly all he needs to do is face Vader? None of this makes sense, but who cares? It’s Star Wars! The movies propel you forward with them so that you miss a lot of these issues.

I’m not going to comment on the prequels, because their issues were so apparent it killed my enjoyment of the movies as they were happening. But maybe that’s just me.

I would also argue about the characterization. I think there are character arcs for the main characters – Jyn and Cassian – and the supporting characters get what most supporting characters receive in most movies, cursory backgrounds and quirks that help differentiate them. Again, two of my favourite characters from Rogue One were supporting characters, and their backgrounds were cursorily sketched but it was exactly enough information to understand them. K-2SO even has a character arc that sees his character grow, while Chirrut kind of has an arc in that he achieves a kind of spiritual destiny in that his faith leads him to succeed where perhaps no one else could.

Cassian’s background is outlined a lot better than either Leia’s or Han’s in the original movie, and Jyn’s was also outlined more than Luke’s and certainly as much as Rey’s. I don’t get how anyone can say that her characterization is shallow. Also, in regards to her epiphany moment, it completely made sense to me. As soon as she realized her father was alive and was still fighting, she wanted to help him. She wanted to help both of her father’s even though both abandoned her at one point. She is old enough and experienced enough to understand – intellectually if not emotionally – why each did so. I think the moment she understood her father sacrificed for her and was sacrificing for the Rebellion, she wanted to return to him, to help him. Did she suddenly become infused with fervour? I would argue she would have had that from the beginning. Her father and mother seemed idealists who would have instilled that in her. I would think Saw would have inculcated a certain amount of fervour. Sure, her life alone, after Saw left her, had made her cynical, but seeing her father and then losing Saw, I would expect, would be enough to inflame her, and reignite her idealism.

As to Cassian, I believed that he had learned to trust Jyn and this gave him enough doubts in his orders that when it came time to kill Jyn’s father, he couldn’t do it. He did bad things because he believed they were necessary. When he questioned that necessity, he questioned his orders. It was no different than Han Solo’s turn – he learned to trust Luke and just couldn’t leave him behind and at risk. Both seemed to go against their personalities, but I think both earned their character turns, that their interactions leading up to the moment of the turn strongly telegraphed that turn.

Again, two of the major criticisms of the movie I disagree with. Seriously, I think that there were faults – there were some plot holes and the supporting characters received minimal characterization – but these faults were keeping with the feel and structure of Star Wars movies, that we accept these faults because they are assist in creating the excitement that the movies deliver.

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My Week That Was, 16 Dec 2016

Well, it’s been quite some time since I’ve done one of these. Given that all my other writing is either schoolwork or a commission on which I’m working, I’ll get this out there to break the radio silence and offer proof of life.

For my course, we were reading about Pearl Harbor and 9/11, which was interesting, but I think more interesting was the previous week’s reading about the warnings offered in advance of Hurricane Katrina which were ignored. It points to the failure of Hurricane Katrina as a failure of response rather than warning – which is not uncommon and links back to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, both of which were failures of response rather than warning. On Hurricane Katrina, Tom David’s contribution to the Select Bipartisan Committee on Hurricane Katrina is good to get a sense of the amount of information available in advance of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. As a bonus, Stephen Marrin provides a really good third-party dissection of the findings of the 9/11 Commission – which considered 9/11 a failure of warning – in his 2011 article “The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks: A Failure of Policy Not Strategic Intelligence Analysis” in Intelligence and National Security vol 26 no 2-3. It’s definitely worth a read if you can get access to it through ResearchGate or Taylor-Francis Online.

I have finished both Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive (the inspiration for the title of Nefertiti Overdrive, though not the content of the game). I feel that both suffer in comparison to Neuromancer, but Mona Lisa Overdrive especially is still great reading. I’m going to continue with my Gibson reading. I believe I’ve read Pattern Recognition, but don’t remember much about it, but that’s next on the list.

This past week I continued with the game I’m calling “Nor’Westers” which is a campaign using Western tropes in the setting of Canada’s fur trade in 1810. One of my players pointed to the TV series Frontier as something that really scratches that same itch, so this is something I need to find.

I’m always praising Slate.com’s Political Gabfest, which was especially awesome this week because it included a segment with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I love listening to (and reading). I would strongly suggest giving the Political Gabfest a listen, but I’d also like to recommend Emperors of Rome, which is a fantastic podcast, but which has been hit and miss recently – for me – as it has interspersed its discussions of Roman emperors with other personages. The last one in that vein was Cleopatra, which was a fantastic episode as it hit on both my love of Rome and interest in Egypt, but the most recent episode is especially fun as they discuss the movie Gladiator. The enjoyment of but pain induced by the movie for Dr. Rhiannon Evans, one of the two hosts, mirrors so much my relationship with Braveheart, it was great to hear.

I haven’t really had the chance to play much in the last week, but I did try a bit of Medieval Total War, which was fun. I played the Picts during the Viking Invasion, and was doing good, until the Vikings showed up. Huh. Probably should have seen that coming.

I hope you had a great week!

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Phantom Detective (or Detective Hong Gil-Dong: the Vanished Village)

Having been sent on a trip for work, I’ve had a chance to watch some movies, some of which I probably would not otherwise have watched, but Phantom Detective (the Korean title is Detective Hong Gil-Dong: the Vanished Village) is something I probably would have caught on Netflix if I had seen it there.

Phantom Detective is kind of a weird movie, but I have to say that I ended up enjoying it. This is something of a neo-noir with elements of pulp and comedy, and follows the actions of a relatively unsympathetic detective named Hong Gil-Dong, which is the name of a Korean legend very similar to Robin Hood. Oddly enough, at least in translation, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for this connection. Gil-Dong is on the trail of the man who killed his mother, and in this pursuit, he is ruthless, his actions often brutal. He has a character arc, and one that is telegraphed, but which takes a bit longer than I expected.

The movie is set in mid-1980s South Korea, which is an odd choice to me, but I think it is trying to reflect on that period as a liminal age, the transition period between military dictatorship and democracy, when South Korea was gaining affluence and confidence but when it was still undeveloped. There is a secret organization in the movie that maybe intended to represent conservative forces that looked fondly back at the military dictatorship as a time of stability, but which – given the present presidential scandal and the pseudo-religious nature of the fictional organization – seems prescient.

The movie’s tone is incredibly uneven, and the plot surges along mostly because it must. I was aware of these problems watching it, but this actually didn’t detract too much from my enjoyment. I really liked the way the CGI portions were emphasized, somewhat like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a movie which I also very much enjoyed. I don’t know if this was a choice or actually reflects poorly rendered CGI, but it worked for me. This may be because after Sky Captain, I associate this unreal CGI with pulp adventure on screen. I found it endearing rather than annoying.

The main character is interesting in that he’s both very competent but also vulnerable. He’s fine facing down mooks, but also gets his butt handed to him multiple times through the movie. He’s not invincible, and his determination proves both a strength and a weakness. I’m glad the character grows, because at the outset of the movie, while he’s an amusing character, he’s somewhat unsympathetic, at least for me.

I don’t think this is a great movie, but it’s pretty good. I would say that if you have the opportunity to watch it, give it a go. It’s not a movie that I would hunt down to watch again, but if it comes to Netflix, I’ll definitely be checking it out with my wife.

I give Phantom Detective 3.5 waxed paper-wrapped caramels out of 5. Its CGI is evident and its plot and arc pretty pedestrian, but it has charm, interesting ideas, and the main character is certainly engaging.

You can read more about Phantom Detective at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can read more about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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My Week That Was, 4 November 2016

Still haven’t read anything for class, but I have been reading David Brin’s blog. He’s the author of the Postman, Earth, and the Uplift series, along with a lot of other stuff. He’s also a smart guy who has some very strong political beliefs, so be ready for it!

I’m still re-reading Count Zero, but this is on the bus during my commute, and for three out of the five days, I’ve instead listened to Govind Sreenivasan’s Europe and the Wars of Religion (1500-1700) lectures from the Great Courses. This course is no longer available, which is a real pity. His discussions of the the Revolt of the Netherlands (1566-1609) directly influenced my work on a new RPG – the Wall. The Wall has taken up a lot of my after work time, and it’s something very different from what I’ve done before.

No gaming happening this week (next Friday I get to enjoy some more gaming as I’m a player in Kieron O’Gorman’s Star Wars campaign using FFG’s system), but I have been doing a lot of thinking and planning for the Wall, which includes running solo scenarios to see how the mechanics work.

My favourite podcast this week was definitely Govind Sreenivasan’s Europe and the Wars of Religion (1500-1700) lectures, but since they aren’t available, I’m going to point to the fantastic War on the Rocks podcast episode about Russia’s nefarious actions involving the present US election.

Every night after my eldest gets to bed, I’ve played an hour or so of Fallout: New Vegas running the mod New Vegas Bounties II. One of my companions is basically zombie Doc Holliday. How is that not awesome?

I hope you had a great week!

 

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My Week That Was, 28 October 2016

I haven’t read anything for class because I’m in the final week and was doing stuff like writing a final paper, but I have been reading Dr. Andrei Lankov’s discussion of the emigration of ethnic Koreans from Japan to North Korea in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall, but you might be able to read one article for free. Maybe two?

I’ve been re-reading Count Zero. The last time I read it was probably when I was in university, so it feels like I’m reading it for the first time.

I haven’t done any gaming, but I’ve put some spare time into my Sword’s Edge RPG project, Lawless Heaven, a Sword’s Edge adventure inspired by Korean action movies, and a new idea I’m calling the Wall which I’ll write about soon over at SEP.

Favourite podcast listened to this week was In Our Time, talking about the 12th Century Renaissance.

I’ve played less Darkest Dungeons than last week, mostly because I’ve been going to bed earlier and working more on games.

And I hope you had a good week yourself.

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The Tiger

I am always thankful for the relatively good number of Korean films and TV series Netflix Canada has to offer. When I saw The Tiger had arrived, a 2015 movie with one of Korea’s best actors – Choi Min-Sik – I decided that would be my Saturday night. Of course, my wife was on board. She’s also a fan of Mr. Choi.

In this movie, set during Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, Choi plays a renowned hunter, now retired and raising his teenage son on his own. The Japanese governor of the region is a big proponent of hunting – with his office festooned with stuffed examples – and wants the last tiger in Korea killed. In translation, the reason for this is hazy, but it likely has something to do with breaking Korean pride – Korea sometimes links itself to the tiger. In any case, this sets in motion a series of events leading to the promised confrontation of man and animal within the beautiful but brutal precincts of Jiri Mountain.

As a fan and owner of a DVD copy of The Ghost and the Darkness, I went into this with some expectations. Don’t do that. This is a great movie, a really enjoyable experience, but it is a fable. This movie creates a myth. Whereas The Ghost and the Darkness tried to show the terror of nature at it is, the Tiger shows the majesty of nature as many in Korea understood it. There is an  indigenous shamanic belief system/religion which I understand to posit every living thing has a spirit, and one must view this movie with that in mind. I attended a couple of celebrations of mountain gods when I lived in Korea, but my knowledge of the actual belief system is nil, so I’m probably misrepresenting this and for that I apologize.

This movie is as much opera as it is cinema. The tiger acts as no real tiger would, and I saw the “Mountain Lord” – as he is known – as an embodiment of the spirit of the mountain. Is this an allusion, a meditation on pride, despair, and expectation? Sure, or it’s Jaws on a mountain with a tiger instead of a shark. However, whereas the terror of Jaws was in its unthinking, unfeeling antagonist, the Tiger presents nature personified. Think of what we’ve done to it and you might not be surprised that nature is pissed.

I enjoyed this movie for Choi’s amazing performance (pretty much a given), the great locale (my wife and I visited Jirisan in February, just before we got married), and the willingness of the director to provide a moving tale that has a wealth of meaning and thought swimming below the surface. If you want to watch a movie about a super-tiger and the tired old man who may be the only one who can kill it, enjoy! If you want to meditate about the subtext, there’s plenty here to chew on.

I give the Tiger 4.75 tooth and claw fodder foot soldiers out of 5. This is a great looking, pensive movie with streaks of violence and emotion and a stellar cast. This is a definite recommend, especially if you love thoughtful movies, exciting movies, and bombastic movies. This one’s got all that.

You can find out more The Tiger at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can find out more about The Ghost and the Darkness at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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My Week That Was, 21 October 2016

The best thing I read for class this week was Thomas Fingar’s Reducing Uncertainty, all about the role of intelligence analysis.

I’ve been reading Hyena Road, the novelization of the Paul Gross movie I have not yet seen.

I ran some Sword’s Edge in the campaign I’m calling the Nor’Westers, which uses Western themes and tropes for an adventure set in 1810 along the North West Company’s fur trade route into Canada’s interior.

Favourite podcast listened to this week has to be the Slate Political Gabfest discussing – who could have guessed – the US election, although regular host John Dickerson wasn’t on it.

I’ve actually played about 30 minutes to an hour of computer games a couple of nights after I finish my coursework. I feel guilty, but generally I’m too tired to do anything more productive. This week, I played Darkest Dungeon. Kind of hooked.

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