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Wednesday
Apr152015

Guilty Doesn't Mean Bad

When talking to a co-worker about how I was reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon because I was a big fan of the show on Starz, the words "It's a guilty pleasure of mine" actually slipped out of my mouth.  

Jaime and Claire from Outlander.

I thought I had stricken that phrase out of my vocabulary, but sometimes it makes its way into my speech, no matter how much I try to keep it out. I started this when I realized that "guilty pleasure" was something I used to wave away things I enjoyed, but knew the average person would think were silly or trivial. Or, more often than not, media that is primarily aimed at women.  

Case in point:  Outlander (the show and the books), most reality shows (I'm partial to home improvement shows), most of the books I read (a lot of my female friends read young adult novels), like Jacqueline Carey's and Anne Rice's books.... One of the few exceptions to this rule happens to be my love of the Fast and Furious franchise.

I decided to stop using that phrase because I always seemed to use it to subtly slam things I genuinely enjoy before someone else can.  The decision goes along with my argument that anyone can be a nerd or a geek -- in that same vein, there are many ways to enjoy media.  I don't think enjoying Game of Thrones should be seen as much different from enjoying Outlander.  Outlander focuses on a smaller cast of characters (at least so far in my reading), is a little more focused on personal experiences rather than political... but the both feature their fair share of sex, violence, and political intrigue. One series happens to be written by a man and the other a women....

So what's the difference? Why do I feel just fine admitting my enjoyment of Game of Thrones while having to qualify my enjoyment of Outlander as a "guilty pleasure" that I let myself consume? I'm afraid I don't really have a straight answer.

That's a question I'd like to pose to our readers:  

Is there a theme to the things you consider guilty pleasures?  What do they have in common?  

And why do we feel embarrassment about admitting we like certain things and not others? Does it have anything to do with how widely accepted it is in popular culture? 

Monday
Apr132015

The Fuse and Wikipedia

The Fuse, issue #1, Part 1 of "The Russia Shift", February 2014

The first series of The Fuse, “The Russia Shift,” came out February of 2014. Written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Justin Greenwood, in the simplest terms, it’s a crime drama in space. But with a multi-layered mythology and two complicated characters that do not conform to hero norms, it is so much more.

The Fuse is a five-mile-long satellite in orbit around earth – a floating city with a population of about a half million people. Spanning fifty levels, The Fuse is divided into two political districts: I-SEEC and Midway City.

Ralph Dietrich, a young man of color, is an accomplished detective from Munich who requested a post on the Fuse. His background is a mystery, especially why anyone would volunteer to leave earth and be posted on the Fuse in the Midway City Police Department (MCPD).

Dietrich is partnered with Sergeant Klementina "Klem" Ristovych, a Russian homicide detective with the MCPD. You don’t know how old Klem is but references are constantly made about her still being around. She is highly respected in Midway City in an almost legendary status.

The year the story takes place is never spelled out exactly. Hints are made throughout the existing series with a specific timeline of events. The Fuse itself is somewhere between thirty and fifty years old and Klem has been on it since the beginning.

The Fuse, issue #1, Part 1 of "The Russia Shift", February 2014Klem and Dietrich have a great working relationship. She teases him about his youth but respects his tenacity. She respects that his past is his business as long as it doesn’t get in the way of his job. "Marlene," as Klem calls Dietrich, is too young, driven, and qualified to be on the Fuse but Klem trusts him. Besides, it’s probably just about a girl.

“The Russia Shift” is a six-issue series and was published from February to June 2014. You can now purchase the comprised issues in Volume 1 of The Fuse. The second, six-issue series, “Gridlock,” started in November 2014 and will conclude this month (April 2015). The comprised volume is due out in June 16, 2015.

Johnston and Greenwood are building a really great world. When I started reading “Gridlock” there was some references from the first series that I couldn’t remember. A wiki didn’t appear to exist for The Fuse so I decided if I was going to go back and re-read all the issues, why not compile the data for a wiki.

Image Comics has a pretty good presence on Wikipedia but I was shocked The Fuse didn’t even have a page, nor was it listed on the “List of Image Comics Publications” page. Who knew? Something that isn’t on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia was launched January 1, 2001, so their editing system is a polished machine. It’s easy to create an account and create an article. As expected, the how-to documentation is thorough although obsure and fussy when searching for answers. The most difficult task is uploading images and inserting them into the articles, but there’s a good reason. Unlike most of the internet, Wikipedia respects copyright so uploading images requires permissions, approvals, and documentation. This is not a complaint. On the contrary, it is something I very much respect.

In the summary of this article I was going to give tips and tricks about editing and/or writing for Wikipedia but, the process is so well documented there’s not much new I can add. After-the-fact I found this article when I was trying to find out more about the Wiki approval process. It's four years old but still gives a quicker overview of getting started on Wikipedia than the overly verbose mothership. One little hint I have would be to copy and paste.

If you plan on starting a brand new article, login to your account on Wikipedia and do a search for an existing article similar to the one you want to add. Select the “Edit” tab to display the editing box for the article. At this point you can select sections to copy and paste into your own article to continue the consistency of keywords and outlines.

At this posting my Wiki article for The Fuse is still awaiting review, which could take weeks.

I want to thank Antony Johnston for helping me with the article and giving permission to upload images. Keep writing, guys!

Friday
Apr102015

Smash Up: The Awesome Level 9000 Expansion

After a short hiatus, I'm back to further discuss Alderac's wonderful Smash Up card game. This time, I'll be covering the first expansion pack to the game:  the Awesome Level 9000 Expansion. All expansions add four new factions into the fold and this original add-on has some of the more intriguing additions to the Smash Up canon: Steampunks, Ghosts, Killer Plants, and Cossacks on Bears!

As I've mentioned before, the key to understanding Smash Up is considering what factions would work well together as a team, and I hope that this primer will help. (Note that I am far from a tournament player, but I have put in several hours playing the game, so I am not necessarily inexperienced, either).

COSSACKS (in Soviet Russia...)

Focus - Moving Minions, Destroying Rival Minions, Minion Protection

Cossacks are a very versatile faction, designed to boost both the offensive and defensive capabilities of your deck. At first glance, they seem to be a lot like Pirates; Cossacks have a fair amount of movement and destruction options in their stable, much like the seafaring faction. However, Cossacks operate a bit differently. While Pirates focus on moving themselves, Cossacks instead specialize in moving others. Their destruction options mostly hinge on moving rival minions to a particular base hosting the card of destruction versus the Pirate's more straightforward approach. They also lack any Power 2 or 5 minions; instead, they feature two sets of Power 3 minions and one Power 6 minion. Add in their stunning capability to prevent the destruction of their owner's minions, and you've got a solid addition to your deck.

Key Cards

Minion wise, there's two that really stand out: the two Power 3 minions, the 3 Bear Cavalry and the 4 Cub Scout cards. These epitomize the Cossack method. The Scouts can destroy any minions with less power than them if the rival minions are relocated to a base where Scouts are in play. Since they are Power 3, that opens up the potential of eliminating most faction's grunt units.

Cossacks have many ways to move rivals around, and the Bear Cavalry minions do just that. If you have Scouts on all of the bases, this would severely cramp up certain factions, like Pirates. Robots and Giant Ants are also in trouble, since they each have more than the usual 4 minions with a power level lower than the Scouts. Before switching to actions, I want to add a note about the Power 6 General Ivan; when he is in play, all of your minions are safe from destruction. The inability to destroy minions can really ruin some factions, like Ninjas, Pirates and Vampires.

High Ground is the Cossack action of choice. This is applied to a base and it can destroy ANY rival minion that moves to that base, no matter its power (if a minion states it cannot be destroyed, then that ability does overrule this card, so keep that in mind). Yikes. The two Commission cards let you play a second minion and then move a rival from that base to another one. You're Pretty Much Borscht forces all other minions, no matter how many players there are, to shift to another base. Combined with High Ground, this will devastate your foes!

In short, don't mess with the bears!

GHOSTS (BOO!)

Focus - Hand Discards, Minion Manipulation, Discard Resurrection

Ghosts are one of the trickier decks in the Smash Up canon. They work at their best when their owner has a small hand; the less cards you carry, the more effective and powerful they become. Two minions and four actions require you to have two cards or less in your hand to work, but if you do, the benefits you gain are significant. They can also utilize the discard pile to summon up minions a la their undead cousins Zombies, but that trait doesn't dominate the faction's toolkit so much. They have a greater emphasis on minion manipulation, particularly rendering those cards immune to other player's abilities and actions. Ghosts are difficult to play, but if you can find a good pairing for it, they can be a great support deck with mild offensive options.

Key Cards

The Ghosts lack a Power 4 minion and, instead, feature two Power 3 minions. Of the two, the two Hauntings deserve mention, as they showcase the Ghost methodology quite nicely. If you have two or fewer cards in your hand, they gain a +3 Power boost and become unaffected by other player's cards. The capability of a impervious Power 6 minion popping up is something a Ghost player will definitely want to strategise for. The Power 5 Spectre can be called up from the discard pile to be a playable minion if you have two or fewer cards as well, making it a constant menace to the game.

Action-wise, Ghosts have a few doozies. Make Contact is the nastiest, as you can possess and take over any minion in play from your rivals, as long as it's the last card you were holding in your hand. Shady Deal grants a Ghost player 1 VP if they have 2 or fewer cards in their hand. The two Ghostly Arrival actions let you play both an extra minion and an extra action if you can. And for your non-Ghost compatriots, the two Incorporeal cards render a minion immune to other player's cards. If played effectively, Ghosts can really haunt the plans of your opponents!

KILLER PLANTS (Feed Me, Seymour)

Focus - Extra Minions, Deck Manipulation, Base Manipulation

Killer Plants are an interesting faction. Their focus is to grow and spread their might across bases, and they have many ways to accomplish that task. Primary among those options are the three card types that can call out extra minions. They also have three cards that enable their players to search their decks for extra minions to either play or store in your hand. And Alien, Pirate, and Cossack players will hate some of their base actions, which prevent movement or return cards from affecting them. Add in some other particularly nasty base actions and you've got one of the better factions in the game.

Key Cards

The four Power 2 Sprouts are the keystone to the Plant attack. After being played, on any subsequent turn, you can destroy it to enable a search through your deck for any Power 3 minions or less to take its place. Depending on your partner, this can really cause headaches for opposing players. Cossacks work well, as do Ghosts, since they have a higher plethora of Power 3 minions than other factions. Shapeshifters, with their Power 0 Mimics and Power 2 Copycats, can also be a solid ally.

Plants lack Power 4 minions, instead featuring 2 Power 5 (gasp!) minion types. The Power 5 Venus Man Trap is the champion of the two, with its talent to summon extra Power 2 minions once per turn from your deck. The two Power 5 Weed Eaters are useful as well, but their full power takes another turn to activate.

Plants are loaded down with fantastic actions. Overgrowth forces a base to break on your next turn, which can generate panic in your rivals. Blossom lets you play up to three extra minions with the same name. This can also cause distress among foes, since you can throw out three Power 2 or Power 3 minions with many factions (if you have the two Weed Eaters, you can quickly add 10 Power to a base on your next turn!). The two Sleep Spores cards are played on a base and reduce all other player's minion's Power by 1, and can be stacked, making their efforts to win a base far more difficult. Lastly, Choking Vines is the one card Plants have that can destroy other player's minions, although it has to wait until the next turn to activate. As you can see, Plants are truly terrifying in the right hands.

STEAMPUNK (Do you feel lucky?)

Focus - Base Manipulation, Discard Manipulation, Extra Actions

Steampunk just so happens to be one of my personal favorites. They are very much a support deck, lacking any form of destruction. However, they have some of the best base actions in the game, and their minions aren't shabby, either. They are the only faction in this expansion with a "normal" minion distribution: there is a Power 2, 3, 4 and 5 minion, and all of them are pretty useful in some way. They can also utilize the discard pile, but unlike Ghosts and Zombies, they resurrect actions, not minions. They also can replay or use extra actions. To summarize, Steampunk could very well be the best supporting half of a particular deck in the entire canon.

Key Cards 

The Power 5 Steam Queen prevents any of your actions from being affected by other player's cards. Given how important actions are to this faction, this is a godsend. The two Power 4 Mechanics can use a discarded base action as an extra action when they are played. And the three Power 3 Steam Man cards gain a +1 Power boost if they are played on a base with an action of yours. As you can see, base actions are truly pivotal to this group.

Aggromotive and Rotary Slug Thrower are two of the fiercest base actions in the entire game. These give your minions incredible Power boosts: Aggromotive gives you a +5 overall bonus if you have a minion there, while Rotary Slug Thrower adds +2 to each minion in play on that base. This can cause bases to break quickly, and with the Mechanics and the two Scrap Diving actions (which let you place a discarded action in your hand), can easily come back into play over and over again. Ornate Dome is the among the greatest preventative base actions you can find in Smash Up: it cancels out any actions in play on a base (minions included), and stops other players from playing any other actions on that base while it is in play. Couple this with a Steam Queen and that base is effectively shut down for some groups.

Last but not least, the two Zeppelin cards let you move one minion either to or away from a base. If you are battling for a Ninja base that is going to break, for example, and you can slip into second place if one minion leaves that base, then play Zeppelin and relocate! Steam on!

The Awesome Level 9000 Expansion normally retails for $19.99, although many outlets discount it to $14 or so. If you like the Core set, this expansion is definitely worth considering!

View the rest of the articles in this series

Monday
Apr062015

Younger: STBY

Younger premiered on TVLand March 31, 2015. It’s about Liza, a 40-year-old woman, recently divorced, who must get back into the job market after staying home for fifteen years to raise her daughter. She interviews with execs in their mid-twenties who look down on her for her age. Well, they don’t just look down on her, they discriminate her for it.

“That would be weird. I mean, assistants are generally right out of college, you’re way too old....”

From the title and dialogue in the pilot I got the feeling that being in your 40s was akin to death:  if you're a 40-ish mother you’re irrelevant and if you’re a 40-ish career woman you’re bitter.

Since I stumbled across the pilot by accident on Hulu, I did some background research to find out what the creative thoughts were behind the show and maybe get a better understanding of what the title meant. What is it to act younger, think younger, live younger  to be seen as younger? Here’s what show creator and executive producer, Darren Star, had to say about the show:

What really drew me to the book Younger was the themes about ageism and how people perceive us and how they look at our age as a number is not always a reflection of who we are. So this is a story of a woman who's 40-years old and divorced and trying to restart her life, but is finding that her number is causing her some difficulty, so she creates this idea of passing herself off as a 26-year old. I think a lot of women take time off from work to raise their kids and poke their heads back up and are ready to get back in there and realize the world is looking at them in a different way. But inside they still feel young and they still feel relevant and they have a lot of skills and a lot of talent that they’re not being recognized for.

If you’re 40 you still have that 20-something person still inside of you. And you can still express who that person is and I think that is what people will hopefully connect to with this show. It’s age and it’s more than a number and it’s more about who you are inside.

At first glance I thought maybe the Younger pilot was setting up for more depth in the future – that they were building a foundation with all the myths and stereotypes they plan to destroy. It would be a dangerous plan because the pilot gives no indication, nor does Star, that they really understand female ageism.

The idea that Liza is “trying to restart her life” would mean that it stopped when she got married, had a baby, and left her career. Repeatedly, Liza makes references to cultural and current events she’s clueless about because she’s had her head in the sand for fifteen years. It’s plausible that she doesn’t have her own Twitter account but I find it difficult to believe a mother with a daughter in high school is so ignorant about social media.

“When did Bombay become Mumbai?”  Liza†

At 52, I’ll readily admit I don’t feel or think my age, but I’m not denying it either. Star and Younger portray the ideal female image as a stylish, social-tech savvy, single, career woman in her mid-twenties. The actress playing Liza, Sutton Foster, just turned forty in March – that happened under the wire. Even in her grown-up clothes it’s difficult for Foster to look forty-ish. The advantage Foster brings to her character is that she can pull off 26 – something most of us can’t do but is apparently very important.

“The problem with Trout-pout is that she’s 43 and divorced. She sees girls like us come in here with our fresh ovaries and our faces plumped with natural elasticity and she just wants to destroy us.”  Kelsey Peters, played by Hilary Duff

The message to Liza isn’t just that sex, fun, and relevance ended when she chose to leave her career. Liza’s boss, Diana Trout (Miriam Shor, 43), isn’t much better off as a top marketing executive. Mean, bitter, and strung as tight as her French twist, her age and failed marriage (or the fact that she married to begin with) has made her the evil queen.

What horrible options we women have!

“We’re only in our twenties once.... Well, you gotta live it. Before you know it you’re going to be in your forties, living in a house in the suburbs, with a husband who watches TV all night while you’re in your bathtub spritzing your shower hose on your special place.”  Kelsey Peters

What I understand from Younger is that when women turn 40 it’s time to reboot. The ideal for women is 20-something so get a makeover, join the latest social media accounts, get a boy toy, hide your children, and listen to One Direction (oops).

I’ll Give You a Topic

If you could have any plastic surgery, what would it be?

Does Younger also misrepresent 20-somethings? If so, how?

How did things change when you became a parent?


† The name change happened in 1996, which is four years before the birth of Liza’s daughter.

Friday
Apr032015

Performance in The Sims 

The other day, I came across a video by one of my favorite youtube channels, PBS Ideas Channel.  It was about gender, specifically gender as portrayed in the Sims.  


Now, I came to the Sims franchise fairly late in life. At least, I only played it for the first time about two years ago when I got a copy of the Sims 3 in a Humble Bundle. It didn’t take long before I was a little… obsessed. I could play hours at a time, switching between one of my five families to another. They all had their own backstories, relationships, and, of course, their own drama. I recently got The Sims 4 when it became available on Mac and I’ve been having just as much fun creating havoc in the lives of my sims.

In the video “How Do We and The Sims Perform Gender?” Mike Rugnetta, the host of the PBS Ideas Channel, introduces to the audience to the concept that gender is merely a social construct.  It is not physical, but rather something we learn from our environment, culture, and our interactions with others.

This is not a new idea to anyone who has studied critical theory, but, in my opinion, Rugnetta does an amazing job summing up gender theory in just a couple of short minutes.  (If it’s not already apparent, I highly recommend watching the video.)

“For both you and your sims, gender is a performance.”

As progressive as The Sims franchise has been in the past, with its long history of having both straight and gay relationships be a possibility for all sims (sims are inherently bisexual in their behavior), Rugnetta has a point.  As he says, misplaced gender expressions are not allowed.  Male sims cannot wear makeup or dresses and female sims cannot wear the clothes that are made for male sims, no matter how commonplace it is for women to wear men’s clothes in real life.

It would be truly inspiring if the Sims introduced the idea of a gender spectrum, as opposed to it’s current gender binary of male or female.  After all, how deeply does gender affect sims? Interactions between sims are mostly biased by the player – the traits a sim possesses have more effect on interactions than whether they’re male or female. (The only significant difference between the two is that female sims can get pregnant.)

Even simply having clothes and other options in Create a Sim be available to use for a sim of either gender would be a start. Clothes are already separated into categories and types.  Would it be a significant change to have all clothes be available for all sims?

I would love the chance to play around with creating myself in the Sims with double to the options when it comes to clothes. It would certainly lead to interesting new characters and opportunities in storytelling.

For now, I guess I’ll just have to wait patiently until they come out with a patch for The Sims 4 that has a decent curly hair option…. Someday.

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