Sunday, January 29, 2012

Perl blog post #4

This week I decided to write about my trials and tribulations getting a new version of Test::File out, so hop on over to my perl blog and read all about it.  Probably more so if you’re into the whole technogeek thing, but there is a reference to my eldest in there for anyone who knows me and is willing to suffer through the technobabble.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Game for a Younger Man

You guys may remember that, ever so long ago, I talked about my love for a game called Heroscape.  In that blog post, I pointed you to a video review (actually a 5 part series) of the game by a guy named Tom Vasel.  If you followed that link, and if you watched at least the first couple of minutes, you heard Tom say this:

I can play it with children, I can play it with teenagers, I can play it with other adults, and it is an absolute blast.
—Tom Vasel

And that has always been one of my favorite things about the game.  I’ve played it with people as young as 5 or 6, up through people as old as 50 or 60 (into which neighborhood I myself am headed at a pretty good clip).  Playing with folks my own age is a lot of fun.  Playing with the younger folks (say, 15 to 25) is fun too, although I think they tend to be a lot more competitive, and therefore more cutthroat.  But, to me, playing with the really young kids is the best.  They have such a great hunger to try everything, and such a huge imagination, and such a pure joy in doing well.  It’s awesome.  And, if you managed to get all the way to the end of part 5 of Tom’s video review, you heard him say this:

And that’s another great thing about Heroscape: it’s the fact that it gives you great stories to tell.
—Tom Vasel

And that’s definitely true.  Some of my favorite Heroscape moments of all time were with very young people.  For my elder son’s eighth birthday, we played a six-way game among myself and kids ranging from 7 to 10.  Some wanted the biggest dragons they could find.  Some wanted the cheapest squads so they could start with the largest number of troops.  One kid picked the cowboy sniper, planted him in the very center of the map, and just picked off people every round while the other players busied themselves with trying to kill each other.  It was an awesome game, which I didn’t even come close to winning (mine was the second army decimated), but I had so much fun, playing referee and helping them with their strategies and answering their questions about how best to capitalize on the special powers of the units they’d chosen.  And that’s just one of many great moments I’ve had with my son and his friends, or other kids I’ve played with at our local game days.

Of course, I also mentioned back in that first Heroscape post that my son is fairly ambivalent about Heroscape these days.  My elder son, I keep calling him, which of course implies that I have a younger son (which I do).  What about him?

Well, he’s only 5 (although he’ll be 6 in March).  He has actually shown a great interest in playing Heroscape, and many is the time I’ve had to track down missing figures in amongst the piles of his toys.  But, so far, his interest has translated mainly into a desire to help me put the maps together, and to jump the figures around the map.  He just wasn’t ready yet: he lacked the patience to listen to the rules, the discipline to wait his turn, and the composure to deal with losses to his army without freaking out.  So I’ve waited.

Until yesterday.

I don’t know why, but yesterday I just decided that he was ready.  He hadn’t said anything, I just decided to ask him if he felt like playing a game.  Perhaps it was the fact that he had been banned from video games for some particularly bad behavior on Friday and didn’t have much else to do.  Perhaps it was the advances in his vocabulary lately that have demonstrated he is in fact growing up a bit.  Perhaps I just sensed somehow that it was finally time.  Whatever it was, I asked him after his afternoon shower if he wanted to do something special with me, and he said “what?” and I said “play a game of Heroscape” and his face just lit up.

Now, I should get one thing out of the way early.  I’m not the kind of parent who just lets my kids win.  I never throw games intentionally.  First of all, I think getting kids too accustomed to winning makes them unable to handle losing gracefully.  Secondly, I think it’s insulting.  If you’re not bringing your A-game, you’re telling your opponent they’re not worth it, and they usually recognize that.  And if you think you’re going to skate by because your kids are young and you’re such a great actor, you’re not all that bright.  Kids are extremely perceptive, and they know you as a parent better than they know any other human on the face of the earth.  You may get by with it once or twice—or more often, if your kid is particularly oblivious or you really are a better liar than most—but eventually they will cotton on, and then where are you?  No, better to be honest from the get-go: play them like you mean it, or don’t bother.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do a few things to give them a fighting chance.  After all, you know how to play the game, and they don’t.  To a certain extent, that gives you an unfair advantage right there.  Basic courtesy says you have to help them out a bit.  After all, the point is to help them learn the game, right?  Sure, you could “teach” them by beating the tar out of them, but that’s a bit like “teaching” them to swim by tossing them into the deep end of the pool.  What I do for my kids when I’m teaching them a game is that I spend a lot more time helping them develop their strategy—I don’t tell them what to do, I just give them lots of options and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each—than I do working on my own.  As a result, their strategy tends to be pretty decent (while still staying their own), while mine is fairly scatterbrained, so that gives them a bit of a leg-up.

In this particular game, I decided to give my son a few other simple advantages, and here I’m going to give a few Heroscape-specific details, so if you don’t play the game, this might not mean much, but just bear with me and try to ignore that.

First, the map.  Now, I don’t always play on perfectly symmetrical maps (which are considered more fair, since they’re the same no matter which side you end up getting); in fact, sometimes I like to play on a non-symmetrical map and give the side with the advantage to the less experienced player.  In this case, though, I just wanted to slap a map together super-quick, and I happened to still have the pieces of a map from National Heroscape Day separated out, so we built Fire Isles.  Since this is a map that has some lava in the center, my son decided to bring a primarily fire-based army, which would shine under those conditions.  Since I wanted him to have a bit of an edge, I decided to field an ice-based army, which would suffer pretty badly from not having any snow on the board.  But I should be able to overcome that moderately easily.

He chose the following army:

for a total of 625 points.  I chose:

for a total of 605 points, which put me 20 points in the hole.  Now, I could have taken Marcu or something to fill out the other 20 points, but I figured that was easy enough to overcome as well.

So my son has an army that can dominate the center of the map: few of his figures have to worry about taking any lava field damage, and his Obsidians (a.k.a. “lava dudes”) can actually stand in the molten lava and throw it at people.  Plus his fire elementals, which are normally a pain in the ass because they can burn their allies, have a lot more freedom of movement here, since the vast majority of his team is fireproof.  The only ones that aren’t are the elementalist, who is necessary to get the most out of the elementals, and the water elementals, who are not as useless as they might seem: there’s a thin strip of water on either side of the map, and they can use their “water tunnel” ability to hop around from one water space to another, and they can shoot water blasts from the sidelines.

Whereas I, on the other hand, do have to worry about taking lava field damage, the molten lava is strictly off-limits for me, my ice elemental will never get to heal, and my poor yetis effectively have no powers at all.  Plus I’m shy 20 points.  But, still, I’m thinking that my greater experience and longer attention span is likely to mean I’ll crush him, and I don’t want to do that.  I don’t mind if he loses, but I at least want it to be close.

So I decide that I will use order markers, and he won’t.  Now, if you don’t know Heroscape, order markers are a pretty crucial part of the game.  You have to choose which units you’re going to move and attack with ahead of time: you choose a 1, a 2, and a 3, and your opponent does the same, and that’s a round.  Next round, you get to choose 3 new ones (or the same ones, if you like).  It means you have to think ahead, and anticipate your opponent.  I’m thinking my 5-year-old is not quite ready to do that yet.  So I’m not going to cripple him that way, but I could just not use the order markers at all (which is what I did with my elder son).  Instead, I decide that I will force myself to observe the strictures, while he’s free to do whatever he likes.

And this turns out to be the right decision, as it was a fairly close game.  I led off with the big white dragon, as I’ve had many folks do to me: jump right into the middle of the map and start turning people into popsicles.  It’s an aggressive play and I didn’t show him any mercy.  He countered by sending the lava dudes into the center of the map and started flinging lava right and left.  I left poor Nilf in the same spot just one turn too long, and he went down at the beginning of the second round, having taken out only two lava dudes for the trouble.  Sure, there was some luck involved—one of the lava dudes rolled an impressive 4 out of 4 skulls at one point while I countered with a dismal 0 out of 5 shields, which knocked out the bulk of Nilf’s life points—but both of us were playing hard and playing smart.  Understand that I didn’t advise him to put his lava-slinging dudes into the center of the lava pit.  All I did was explain what they could do, and he chose how to deploy them.

After the loss of Big White, it was pretty much downhill.  I got my frost giant into the thick of things, while trying to move the yetis up as flankers, but the water elementals flanked my flankers and blasted everyone who came near them.  Brunak moved up to engage Frosty, big sword against big axe, and his defense of 7 proved impossible to crack.  Once the giant went down, I brought the GIE up while my son mowed down the last of the yetis, but it was too little too late.  The fire elementals swarmed him (side note: a fire elemental attacking an ice elemental is a crazy dice-rolling frenzy—the GIE gets to roll for ice spikes as the FE moves adjacent, then the FE rolls for burn damage, then the FE attacks and the GIE defends) and brought him to half-dead before he took them out, then Brunak hopped over and blew him away with another all-skulls-vs-whiff roll.  Final score, unwounded Kurrok and unwounded Brunak, along with one obsidian guard and one water elemental, vs a lot of dead bodies.

Understand that I actually offered very little advice throughout this.  I expected to need to help with strategy and all that, but I really didn’t.  A couple of times I showed him where he could move up and get a height advantage that he hadn’t noticed, but he caught on to that trick pretty fast.  And at the very end, I started helping him choose the best way to take me down, because it was obvious at that point that I was going to lose and I just didn’t see any point in dragging it out.  But, other than that—and the other handicaps I’ve already described—he beat me fair and square, and he deserved his victory.  And then he got to run screaming through the house about beating Daddy.  Priceless.

One last note for any of you that may be inspired to do some Heroscaping with your own kids:  Tom Vasel tells us exactly what to do with the “basic game” in part 2 of his review at about 0:35.  I concur with this fervently.  The basic game is worthless.  I just played with a five-year-old and he had absolutely no problem understanding the “master” game.  The only place we “cheated” was in letting him skip the order markers; everything else was strictly by the books.  When he pleaded to let his slow-moving lava dudes have just one more space so he could engage my dragon, I said, nope, sorry, you’ll just have to wait until next time.  He was disappointed, but he got over it.  Other than the order markers, the only place we fell down was that I kept forgetting to let my frost giant roll for his battle frenzy power, but I didn’t do that on purpose to help my son out ... I honestly just forgot.  I never play with that stupid guy anyway.  And that sort of thing happens all the time in Heroscape: there are lots of powers flying around, and sometimes one just slips through the cracks.  It was my job to remember, and I didn’t.  My loss.  Anyway, it might have made the game a bit closer had I remembered, but he still would have won.  I was just outclassed, that’s all.

Point being, he had no problem with the advanced rules at all.  I had to read him the cards, of course, ’cause he can’t actually read yet.  And I might have to remind him about a power the first time or two he used it (“now, don’t forget to add 1 to your attack with that water elemental because it’s on a water space”), but he quickly figured that out and didn’t need it after the first few times.  Kids have no problem with the different characters having different powers.  That’s the way it is in cartoons, and video games, and card games like Pokémon ... why should Heroscape be any different?

So that’s why I did with my weekend.  Fun and, I’d say, productive.  This one’s going to be my strategy gamer, I can tell.  I can hardly wait.

* Yes, I know they’re technically called “Dzu-Teh.”  They’ll always be “yetis” to me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Great Red Dragon

Sometimes I get a wild hair to reread something I’ve read before.  Generally I take myself up on this proposition.  A few nights ago, as I was going to bed, I had a sudden desire to reread Hannibal.  Dunno why; something about the way Harris describes the inner workings of Lecter’s brain is just cool.

But of course if I want to reread Hannibal, first I need to reread Silence of the Lambs.  And, if I want to reread Silence of the Lambs, I need to reread Red Dragon.

I never read Red Dragon until after I’d read Silence of the Lambs, and I never read Silence of the Lambs until after I’d watched Jonathan Demme’s excellent adaptation of it.  Typically, I find movie versions of full-length novels to be inadequate (unless the novel is crap, in which case the movie can be superior), but both movie and book in this case are top notch.  The acting in the movies is one of the high points: the ever-dependable Sir Anthony Hopkins is the quintessential Lecter, of course, and I don’t even mind the change in casting for Starling.  I just think of Jodie Foster as the young, hopeful Clarice, and Julianne Moore as the older, jaded Clarice.  Works out well.

Of course, Red Dragon is a bit lesser known (both the book and the movie), but there’s a lot to be said for both.  On the cinematic side, Ed Norton is certainly always dependable, and Harvey Keitel makes a smidge better Crawford than Scott Glenn.  But honestly, it’s the supporting cast that makes the movie for me: I can’t read about Freddy Lounds without seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in my head, and Reba will always be Emily Watson to me.  (Interestingly, there is a much earlier take on Red Dragon called Manhunter, but it doesn’t work nearly as well, despite the fun of watching a pre-CSI William Petersen as Will Graham.  I mean, I like Brian Cox, but Hannibal Lecter, he ain’t.)

On the literary side, Will Graham is an interesting character.  He’s perhaps not as enduring as Clarice Starling, which is probably why he was replaced in the later books, but there’s a fascinating aspect to figuring out how his brain works.  There’s less Lecter, and more Crawford, than we would see later, but I’m okay with that.  Introducing Lecter as almost a background character just whets the appetite for Silence (where he’s still not the primary killer), and finally Hannibal, which is the ultimate goal.  And Crawford is an interesting character is his own right who’s fun to read; this is required background to understanding him in Silence, I’d say.  The plot is strong, the starring killer is both terrifying and strangely sympathetic, and the tension is worked up very well, which Harris would only perfect in his later works.

So I’m rereading Red Dragon.  I’m almost done with it, in fact (all Harris’ novels are quick reads).  You know what’s striking me most particularly this time around?  How really utterly old the book is.  Makes me feel old.  But mainly what I’m getting is a contrast with how much the genre has evolved since then, quite possibly because of Harris’ early efforts.

Simple example: nowhere is the phrase “serial killer” used in the book.  When Harris needs something to call Lecter, he uses “mass murderer.”  Today, we’d only use that for someone who kills multiple people at one time, or one after another on a spree.  Although the phrase was supposedly invented in the 70s, apparently it wasn’t common parlance when Red Dragon was written in 1981.

Another indication is the way in which Graham is treated.  Remember: Graham is not a psychiatrist or psychologist ... he has no formal training at all, because there are no profilers, no concept of profiling as a way to approach criminals.  The only time “profiling” is mentioned in the book, in fact, is in reference to profiling the victims.1  The type of behavior we’re used to seeing on shows like Criminal Minds was still something strange and fascinating: the way people look at Graham, the way they stare at him, or fidget uncomfortably in his presence, reveals that what Graham is doing is completely outside their experience.  Even Crawford seems in awe of him, and perhaps a little unnerved by him.

It’s also interesting to me that this is the earliest book I can think of where we find out who the killer is very early.  Most crime novels that I’m familiar with from the 70s and before are classic whodunits— the point is to figure out who committed the crime.  But Red Dragon follows what is now almost more commonplace these days: we know who the killer is from the beginning (or very early on at least), and the tension in the novel comes from flashing back and forth between killer and detective, as they circle ever closer to each other.  I suppose this would be what Wikipedia calls an “inverted detective story”, and it claims numerous instances before 1981, but it seems to me these were the exceptions: Agatha Christie’s novels were all whodunits, and even going back to Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Dupin, the audience didn’t know the killer before the end.  And some of the examples that Wikipedia cites (such as Dial M for Murder) are vastly different from the style of Harris’ novels.  Can we credit (or blame) Red Dragon (and, ultimately, Silence of the Lambs) for the invention of the profiler-vs-serial-killer story that we’ve now seen again and again: Copycat and Se7en and The Bone Collector, Criminal Minds and Touching Evil and Dexter, Kiss the Girls and The Blue Nowhere and The Alienist.  And those are just the ones I actually liked ... according to Serial Murderers and their Victims, films depicting serial killers jumped from 23 in the 80s to over 150 in the 90s, and over 270 in the 00s.  And that’s not even considering what I’m sure is a similar rise in books and TV series.  Was Red Dragon an early model for this new subgenre?

There are some other fun anachronisms that I don’t remember standing out so starkly the last time I read it.  There’s a reference to attendence being up at drive-ins.2  A character refers to Hispanics as “chicanos.”3  Firemen wear asbestos suits.4  And I can only assume that the term “guest star” wasn’t in as common use as it is today, because Dolarhyde’s reference to guest stars reads as rather disorienting now.5  But that’s going to be tough to avoid with any contemporary setting.  The march of technology inevitably makes many plot devices irrelevant (see, e.g., TV Tropes’ discussion on cell phones).  But these are pretty minor; overall, Red Dragon holds up remarkably well for being written in the cusp between 70s and 80s.

This has been an enjoyable reread, and I’m looking forward to moving on to the next two books in Harris’ trilogy.6  The curious feeling of dislocation I get when reading it reminds me that there was a time when serial killers were fresh and interesting subjects for novelization, unlike nowadays when it’s old hat.  Of course, as I mentioned above, I actually like all those particular serial killers books and movies, despite the plot device being hackneyed at this point.  I think we owe Harris a debt for opening up a new sandbox for authors and filmmakers to play in.  I look forward to seeing what new fictional serial killers will be spawned from Hannibal Lecter’s fascinating mold.

[Update: I just finished the book this morning.  I noted there was a significant difference in the endings between the book and movie that I hadn’t remembered.  Obviously I can’t discuss this without revealing spoilers, but I would encourage anyone both reading (or rereading) and watching (or rewatching) to think carefully about those differences and what they respectively mean for the character of Graham.  I think the differences in impact are pretty big.]


1 Chapter 34.

2 Chapter 32.

3 Chapter 31.

4 Chapter 50.

5 Chapter 20.

6 The prequel, Hannibal Rising, is also good, but I probably won’t reread that one this time around.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Perl Blog Post #3

It's a Perl week again this week.  Check out the other blog should you be so inclined.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Chapter 18 (begun)

The Bargain

“So,” Johnny ventured, “where are we now?”

Roger had left the wheel and come up behind him again.  “Breen Lagoon.  Didn’t we cover this already?”

Johnny gestured out at the expanse of open water.  “This is a lagoon?  This is a whole ocean!”  He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.  “I thought that was the lagoon back there.”

Roger snorted.  “That’s just the selvage.”

Johnny looked blank.  “The what?”

Aidan broke in.  “The margin.  The verge.”

Larissa chimed in.  “The edge, they mean.”

Johnny looked back out across the water.  “But ... I thought a lagoon was a ... you know ...”

Larissa supplied, “A stretch of salt water separated from the sea by a low sandbank or coral reef.”

Johnny pointed at Larissa.  “Yeah, that.  What she said.”

Roger grinned.  “Not this one.”

Johnny nodded.  “No, of course.  Not this one.  This one is a ... is a ...”

“Place between places,” Aidan chipped in.

Johnny sighed.  “So ... where are we going, actually?”

Roger slapped him on the back, hard.  “We have no idea!”

Johnny rubbed his shoulder and stared back at her.  “Doesn’t that make it difficult to know where to go?”

“Aye, that it does.”

“What about your dad telling you should always know where you’re going, or whatever that was?”

“Wellll ... mayhap I should rephrase.  We do know where we’ll be fetchin’ up, ye know.  It’s just that we don’t have any idea at this precise moment how to get there.”

Johnny threw up his hands.  “And how do we figure out how to get ... wherever we’re going?”

Roger put her hands on her hips.  “We have Aidan for that.”

“Aidan again?”  Johnny looked over at the Water Guide.  “Seems like we expect a lot out of him ...”

Roger snorted again.  Loudly.  “Well, why under Shallédanu’s skirts did ye think we picked him up in the first damn place?”  A ghost of a smile flickered on Aidan’s face.

Johnny looked back and forth between the two of them.  “I thought it was something about monsters ...”

Aidan put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it.  “I did my part with the muck monster, Johnny, you may recall.  And, even though it seems like I didn’t do much for the remainder of the trip upstream, I actually did lay a protective charm on The Sylph here.  And now that we’ve passed into the lagoon, I have other duties to attend to.”  He looked back at Roger.  “Although, you know, Captain ... this won’t be all my doing.  I can but arrange the meeting.  Negotiation will be your department.”

Roger’s eyes sparkled.  “Bring it on, me hearty.  My line is taut.”  She turned back to Johnny.  “I was mostly pulling your leg about the monsters, back at the beginning.  I didn’t really think we’d need Aidan for that, especially before we e’en set sail!  Which just goes to show ye even a pirate captain with years behind the wheel can stand to learn a thing er two.”  She winked at Johnny.  “No, the real reason I thought we’d need a Water Guide on this trip is that we had to float all the way up a river through a swamp and then get into a lagoon so that we could figure out how to get to the ice fields.  Ye see the trim here?”

Johnny looked up at her.  “Wait, did you say ‘ice’?”

Roger cocked her head to one side.  “Aye, I did,” she said slowly.

Johnny closed his eyes and reached out with his new sense.  It was still there, so cold ... if the door in the sewer pipes had seemed like a light, this seemed like an icy draft.  He was still making mental analogies for things that he had no words for, but this was a decent enough description.  And, just like it can be difficult to find the source of a draft in a room sometimes, this was tricky to locate as well.  He concentrated harder; he could hear Roger talking to him, but he shut her out.  It was easy, since his hearing was dialed down again.  He cast his mind out, in all directions; throwing his arms wide, he spun around in a circle until he knew he had a fix on it, then brought his arms together and opened his eyes.  Larissa was standing with a hand on Roger’s arm.  Roger had her mouth open.  Aidain was studying him with a considering expression.

“There,” he said simply.

Roger closed her mouth.  “Are ye sure, Johnny?”

He nodded.  She looked over at Aidan, who was still giving Johnny that calculating look.  He glanced up at her.  “Oh, yes, I’d say that would make the negotiations much more palatable.  We’ll still need them to open the way, of course, but if we require only action, with no information, they will demand less in return.”

Roger grabbed Johnny’s shoulders and looked him full in the face, her grin bubbling up and her eyes alight.  “See, Johnny, I knew ye were here to help us out, and now ...”  Suddenly she leaned in and kissed him, full on the mouth.  Johnny felt her tongue lightly brush his lips.  Before he could properly react, it was over, and he was beet red.  Roger gave a short, triumphant scream.  “Yes!  Those bloody whores’ll never know what hit ’em!”  She gave Johnny a quick, bone-crushing hug and dashed off back to the wheel, still whooping with joy.

Johnny looked up, still trying to process what had just happened.  Aidan was now smiling at him with kind eyes.  Larissa was studying him, her head tilted ever so slightly to one side.  He opened his mouth to speak, but his brain was reeling.

“Wait ... did she say ‘whores’?”

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