Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Big Sleep

The Big SleepThe Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Will someone please purge Peter Falk's voice from my head? I swear the man learned how to speak by having this book read to him as a child.

Again, shame on me for not having read yet another American classic. I've always been a fan of noir in movies or on television, but had not read much at all, until recently. So I set out to make up for my un-American pinko commie ways and read a red-blooded American mystery. Now I honestly can't tell whether Raymond Chandler loved or hated America.

I can tell you that he's a great writer. His prose in The Big Sleep is sparse, almost blunt. But Chandler occasionally turns a phrase that grabs the reader by the throat. In that way he's like Wodehouse, but a dark, serious Wodehouse with only a glimmer of a grim sense of humor.

I went the emotional rounds with Philip Marlowe, admiring him, then hating him, then admiring him again. He's clever, forthright, honest (except when he needs to be dishonest), witty, warm-hearted, then cold-blooded. He's a classic male chauvinist, bordering on a misogynist. Frankly, I really hated him when he interacted with women in such a condescending way. Yeah, I know, he's a product of his time, I get that. But it just got old. Outside of that glaring character flaw, I was fascinated with Marlowe. I think a good deal of my admiration of the detective had to do with watching Chandler's handling of his main character. It's almost as if the author let Marlowe run around and do what he liked, only to pull back on his leash when he was about to give away too much to the reader. I sometimes wondered if Chandler or Marlowe was "in control," which is a testament to the underlying liveliness of the text.

The plot itself was as convoluted as a klein bottle. I often found myself re-reading certain sections to keep the "who's who" straight in my head. The apparent insanity of most of the characters kept things confusing, but also immersed me in the slightly paranoid world in which Marlowe lived. And that's what this book is really about: immersion in an atmosphere. It's a trip. A dark trip, but a fun trip. Just be careful. You never know who's waiting in the dark. Oh, there's always someone there. You might even get to know one of them. And just when you think you know that person in the dark, you just might not. Watch out.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Art Fair on/off the Square

This weekend, each year, I wish I had piles of money stacked around me. They wouldn't last long, I promise, as they would go to the artists featuring work at Madison's Art Fair on the Square and Art Fair off the Square. Why two outdoor art shows on the same weekend, literally one block away from each other? Rumor has it that a lot of Wisconsin artists were upset that their pieces were not picked for Art Fair on the Square, so they formed their own art fair off the square. I'm sure it's all far more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that on this weekend, 200,000 people descend on Madison (don't worry, we're used to it) to browse and buy art.

I don't make it every year, but when I do, I am wowed by the variety presented. I think there are something along the lines of over 500 artists showing their work this weekend. every time I go, I find a handful of artists whose work I fall in love with. This year was no exception:

First is whipplebirds, by artist Judith Whipple. You really need to see these guys in person, in three dimensions. They are colorful, whimsical, beautiful, with a touch of the surreal. I'd love to have a few of these to decorate the house. And I'm not even much of a bird-lover. Maybe I'm trying to compensate for the bird that flew into my windshield this morning. Anyway . . .

I spotted Ryan Peters' raku pottery from across a large crowd of people at the Art Fair off the Square. I'm pretty picky about my pottery, so you can bet that his pieces are pretty unique to have caught my eye from that far away. Unique, but elegant. Classy stuff.

Kevin Eslinger's bizarre interpretations of popular-culture icons was strange and refreshing. I was particularly fond of his Sesame Street zombie ensemble. My adult son and I watched a young boy, maybe four years old, start to point out the Sesame Street painting to his mother, then drop his hand and his jaw when he saw that his favorite characters were not quite right. He's probably scarred for life. But we were entertained!

Now, I've been a big fan of scrimshaw since I saw the impressive collection displayed at House on the Rock. Moby Dick didn't help my obsession much, either. So, imagine my surprise when I stumble on Tree of Life Art Works scrimshaw works. My, oh, my. They truly are gorgeous. Yes, they look good online, but they look stunning in person. Beautiful black and ivory contrast with some of the best line-work I've seen done in a while. I could have dropped a large wad of money here, had I had it.

The artist that caught me by surprise, however, that really knocked my socks off, is a fairly local artist (he lives not far from House on the Rock, in fact) named Nick Ringelstetter. His work combines the best of lowbrow tattoo-style art with a surreal science fiction, monster-movie bent that is brash and brilliant. His website, atomic7studio, only begins to capture the vibrancy of his artwork. Now, granted, a lot of it is done on skateboards, and I haven't skated since that unfortunate chin-bashing I took on a half-pipe when I was 19, but I can be forgiving. He also has some beautiful pieces painted over traffic signs. There was one particular piece that blew me away that, unfortunately, I don't see on his website or in his ebay shop (also, unfortunately,  I didn't have the money to buy it). It was a scene of grey and silver flying saucers and tentacled creatures rampaging through and around a city-scape, all on a blindingly-fluorescent orange stop sign for a background. Talk about eye-candy! I asked him if he did T-shirts, but, like many artists, the economics of scale don't work in his favor. Too bad, because I think he could sell them like hotcakes. Seriously, I can't get enough of this guy's work.

So there you have my top picks for Art Fair on and off the Square. If you happen to have $1000 or so laying around and can't decide what to do with it, I'm open to grants that allow me to buy artwork. Consider this blog-post the grant proposal.

Friday, July 12, 2013

#7RPGs

There's a meme that's been hovering around the interwebs for a while wherein bloggers, etc, name the 7 role playing games that they've DMed/played the most and what they've learned from them. Here are mine, in no order except that imposed by the randomness of my brain:

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - Duh. The grand-daddy of them all. I was introduced to this at a very young age and further corrupted entertained as I grew older. When my teenage sons pooled their money to buy a blue-cover Monster Manual, I knew I had succeeded as a parent.

2. Traveller - Duh, again. I still recall, as a young man, having a character with a leadership skill of 6, who led a planetary rebellion against the Imperium. The character had the skill, I didn't. We took down an air/raft and an APC before being blasted by meson guns. My first experience with an angry nerd for a game master. Now, I make my kids suffer as a result. It's like kicking the dog, or watching a Quentin Tarantino movie . . . only gaming. [Since I've written this post, David Rollins has posted an excellent entry on coming into Traveller late in the game, from the viewpoint of an old-school gamer. Read it. If this doesn't get you excited, you're not excitable.]

3. Gamma World - Being an Air Force brat living at ground zero in the '80s, this didn't seem like too far-fetched of a future. Of course, I was living in Nebraska for much of that time, so you can probably understand why an apocalyptic landscape just felt like home, mutant rabbits notwithstanding.

4. Call of Cthulhu - Yes, I read Lovecraft before I played. Then I read Aleister Crowley and the Book of Revelations before I DMed. Good call. Incidentally, there's an excellent silent movie version of the story Call of Cthulhu that I own and cherish. It's really good stuff. Much better than anything Quentin Tarantino has done.

5. Arduin Grimoire - OK, so it's an AD&D knockoff. I still enjoyed it. And I still use that absolutely vicious critical hit chart. I once DMed a friend (just him and me - the only time I've DMed one-on-one) using the AG rules. He was a half-orc assassin who had recently bumped off a dwarf of some notoriety. So, who else to send after him, but the seven dwarfs? He took out quite a few of them, until Sneezy got a lucky shot in with a war-hammer and made a critical hit. The half-orc wasn't pretty to begin with, but he was especially ugly after taking the hit. Oh, and he was dead, too.

6. Tunnels & Trolls - Yes, I admit to hours of T&T with my friend Raymond and some other acquaintances. Such a goofy game, basically a self-deprecating D&D, but the modules they did were so much fun. It was splatter-humor before splatter-humor was cool. Speaking of which, have you ever watched an interview with Quentin Tarantino? Not the kind of guy I'd like to hang out with. Fake as they come. Seriously. I wouldn't be able to be around him for more than four minutes, as if he cares.What does this have to do with Tunnels & Trolls? Absolutely nothing. T&T is kind of like that.

7. Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Sort of an AD&D clone, sort of not. Much darker, like Progressive Death Metal AD&D. And the survival percentage of characters in a "properly" run LotFP adventure should be really low. Imagine T1: Tomb of Horrors *all* the time. Ruthless. Like a Quentin Tarantino movie. Have I mentioned how much I dislike him? Well, I like LotFP, actually. At least it's honest.

And there you have it. The observant among you will note that I included "Mechwarrior" on my tweet about this same subject and didn't include "Arduin Grimoire" there. Just goes to show how fluid my opinions on RPGs can be. Except for Traveller. Seriously. It just rules because its . . . rules . . . rule . . .

It's time I stop.

_________________

Update: I will be playing the Dungeon Crawl Classics game and it's mutant sister, Mutant Crawl Classics for the first time at Madison's Gamehole Convention. I'll let you know how it goes. I'm very excited about the prospects here, especially after having interacted with so may people who play DCC RPG and listening to some excellent podcasts. Hoping to catch some of that first time magic again!!!

Update to the update: I've begun my recounting of my DCC experience at Gameholecon. Yeah, I'm going to need to make a change to that list up there.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization

Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western CivilizationCheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization by Paul Kindstedt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wisconsin is famous for a few things: Beer, brats, Green Bay Packers, the birthplace of Dungeons & Dragons, UW Badgers, Happy Days and, most of all, CHEESE! I'm a transplant to Wisconsin, having moved here in 1996 for graduate school. We love it here. We raised our children here. I became a cheese snob here.

So when I saw Cheese and Culture at the local library, I knew that I had to read it.

To say it wasn't the most fun of reads is an understatement.

You see, I have a Master's degree in History from University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is known for it's academic rigor in the field of history. I take my history books pretty seriously. I expect a lot. Maybe I expected too much.

After all, the first 147 pages were a series of tenuous connections between economic development and the role that cheese played in that development. But, really, the historical and archaeological sources related to cheese up until the 9th-century A.D. are quite scant. There is a lot of supposition with very little evidence for over half the book. I don't know that it could be helped, but the fact that the work went on and on with stretched speculation didn't give me much confidence that the book would end well.

Thankfully, on page 148, the author, Paul S. Kindstedt, hit his stride. There, the recruitment of new settlers to the Lake Lucerne area by Monks at the Abbey of St. Martin at Muri, heralds the first instance (in this book, at least) of culture and cheese directly affecting each other in a clearly-documented way. Peasants were given incentives, such as farming implements, some livestock, and seeds, to develop the area surrounding the Abbey. In exchange, the settlers were required to pay tithes and work the land around the Abbey. Tithing records show that tithes were often paid with cheese and wool. The settlers gathered themselves and governed themselves by rules set around the production and exchange of these commodities.

From here on out, Kindstedt's research is solid. He traces the development of various artisan cheeses throughout Europe and the later industrialization of cheese production, particularly in England and the United States. After the rise of "factory" cheese through the mid-nineteenth through most of the twentieth-centuries, artisan cheeses made a comeback, starting in the 1970s. This artisan movement is particularly strong here in Wisconsin, where local farms make highly-distinctive cheeses in low volume, which, of course, means that it is more expensive than factory cheese. For a variety of legal and historical reasons, the two "arms" of the cheese industry (artisan and factory) have come to loggerheads in the international courtrooms, primarily over safety concerns about the use of "raw" (i.e., unpasteurized) cheese production. This is complicated by differing views on the exclusive use of place-names (such as "Roquefort") for cheese branding. Those countries that have retained a more artisinal bent (France, Spain, Italy, and Greece) argue for the exclusive use of such cheese names as Roquefort and Parmigiano-Reggiano, while those that developed industrialized cheese making (England, the Netherlands, and Denmark) argue that some cheeses whose names originated as place-names, such as Cheddar and Gouda, are so ubiquitous as to make it impossible to monitor their use. The United States seems to fall into the latter camp, as well (can you imagine having to rename all brands of Cheddar cheese as, for instance, "Wisconsin Gold" or "Vermont Delight"?).

The book ends, as many good history books do, with a question that is much bigger than the subject of the cheese industry. The question is this: with the slow, ongoing change in public opinion from the "least cost model" of food production to a more varied, localized, and environmentally-friendly paradigm, who gets to pay the cost? The switch from least-cost processing and production to more specialized methods costs money. If the consumer pays the cost, without the benefit of government subsidy, does this create a sort of class-based cheese consumption reality? Note that this isn't just about cheese - the rise in the demand for organic foods in general has not been fast enough to outpace the rising cost of these foods. The balance of supply versus demand just hasn't "swung" yet. At the moment, there is a growing divide between "haves" and "have-nots". Those who want more healthy foods must pay the price. Those who cannot afford to pay the price don't have access to the more healthy foods, with long-term consequences for society in general (mainly through the public costs of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease). The further question that Kindstedt implies, but does not broach directly, is this: Should the government subsidize the costs of healthy foods in order to reduce long-term medical costs that affect the taxpayer?

Though the book is a bit of a slog, and not particularly entertaining, I still learned a great deal about the interface between economic history and cheese production. I have a problem with the title - the issue of "culture" is not addressed particularly well. "Cheese and economy" might have been a better title. If the first 147 pages were pared down to, say, 50 pages or so, this would have been much more enjoyable. You need some of the background information given in the first sections, but definitely not all of it. From there on out, though, as the author constructs his arguments from the dark ages on, the historiography becomes tighter, the arguments more clearly-stated and cogent, and the narrative becomes much more interesting.

It could have been better had the editor let it age a bit more. Still, Cheese and Culture has a memorable flavor, not too sweet, not too bitter, but just a touch too bland.

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Addendum: Interestingly, in this month's issue of Discover magazine (I'm a subscriber), there is a little article on "Extremely Aged Cheese" in which it is reported that organic geochemist Richard Evershed has done a forensic analysis of 7,000 year old hole-riddled pottery shards from Poland and determined that some milk-derived product had been contained in them. They're not certain it was cheese, but the cheese making process involved straining rennet-coagulated milk and separating the cheese curds from liquid whey, which makes for pretty good indirect evidence that cheese was being made back around 5,000 BC.

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