Sunday, April 30, 2006

Scratch Factory at Con-Fu!

Okay, we've bitten the bullet and are going for broke. Scratch Factory will be running a session at the forthcoming Con-Fu convention here in Vancouver, May 26th to the 28th, at the Marpole Curling Club (8730 Heather Street).

What session, you ask? What game will we be running?

Why, none other than the long-rumoured, long-anticipated but-never-actually-thought-it-would-happen legend of the infamous "Define Some Genres" thread :

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND



As described by the originator of the whole thing, JPL:

A fantasy Asia, filled with warring island nations. Samurai mounted on domesticated raptors. Bigger dinosaurs hunted by quasi-Polynesian tribesmen. Dueling factions of shadow warriors. Privateers and bucaneers battling the servants of the Imperial Navy. Fallen kingdoms deep in forgotten jungles.

The game session itself is advertised as: Crazy pulp fun, featuring dinosaurs, ninjae, pirates, monkeys and robots. Our Dino-Pirate heroes run afoul of the fearsome SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY and their very brains are at stake! Can you escape the slave pits and find your way to freedom, or at least a glorious death?

If you're in town, come on down and find yourself a spot. There's five open slots, and it'd be great to see some familiar faces around the table.

If you don't think Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island doesn't sound stupidly cool, you are an enemy of fun. And probably not a future customer of Scratch Factory.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Dojo Days

I'm pretty keen on Google Video, I have to say. Yeah, YouTube is fun and everything, but Google Video seems to be geared towards (like all Google products) letting us all change the world just a little bit at a time.

Anyways, here's a video I shot eons ago of a Katori Shinto Ryu demonstration. Katori is a style of Japanese fighting arts that I was fortunate enough to study while I was living in Japan:



The video shows different dojos' forms of the same kata (at least for the last two kata) -- the folks in black (or black and white) are the people from Sugino Dojo, which is where I studied. The folks in blue are from Otake Dojo. You'll probably notice the Otake Dojo guys are a bit more senior to the Sugino Dojo guys -- Sugino sensei commonly let junior students give demonstrations. Heck, he even let ME give one at Yasukuni-jinja. I remember mainly the pain of the hardwood floor on my feet as I sat in seiza for what seemed like FRICKIN HOURS. Pretty sure I did Iaido. Maybe Omote Tachi, too. I don't recall. WAY too nervous.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Whole New World

Well, here we are. Scratch Factory. Dunno just what this will become, but it's been a while in the making and now here we are. Feel free to browse around and have a look. Plenty of old stuff and a little fresh stuff, too. Just for you.

Anyway, Scratch Factory is a name I've been using for assorted more-or-less-creative projects for many many years, and now it's official. I guess.

The blog will remain as helpful and fascinating as ever, don't fear.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Back To The Bottom

I went back to the Eishin-Ryu dojo at UBC this weekend and enjoyed myself immensely. It's very liberating coming into a new dojo; you don't know anything, and everyone knows you don't know anything, so there are no expectations on you to know anything. You just sit back and watch everyone else and do whatever they're doing. You can learn from EVERYONE.

Having not been in a dojo in many years, it's wonderful. And set me thinking about how and why the dojo is structured and operated the way it is.

Steph and I talk about this sometimes; how learning requires submission and the dojo "system" is designed around that basic idea. In order to learn anything you have to accept that you don't know something -- every time we learn we have succeeded in beating down our ego enough to admit that we didn't know that.

The traditional dojo does a really good job of giving people an environment in which they will accept their own ignorance. Having a strict hierarchy of sempai and sensei means you always know who's a worthy teacher for you -- everyone senior to you is (of course, there comes the day when you realise that those junior to you are also worthy teachers). There's no need for debates or arguments. If you disagree with what sensei says, well, too bad. Do it his way while you're in his dojo.

And more often than not, in my experience anyway, after you've done it sensei's way for a while you find that maybe it isn't so wrong after all.

The dojo is also good at making you leave your ego at the door. Bow, sit in seiza, put your sword on the left, or on the right, all the little rules of ritual make it harder and harder for you to bring your own issues into the practice. By submitting yourself to the elaborate rituals of opening that most dojo provide, you start down the path of preparing to learn.

This is why it's so important to perform all these rituals with every bit of intensity and focus that you would bring to your cuts and stances: not because they're important in and of themselves, but because by doing so you make your own learning easier.

Just like accepting the hierarchy of sempai and sensei helps you. It's not just respect, which is how bowing and whatnot often get described in Western literature. Of course there's respect, but there is more importantly submission. The Western tradition denigrate submission (the American branch especially), and in doing so I sometimes think we've lost touch with something powerful and important. If you won't submit to anything, you'll never learn anything. Even de Bergerac was willing to give way to courtesy and romance.

So here I am at Eishin-Ryu UBC, not even knowing how to bow properly, and it's just so wonderful. A room full of teachers. Life on the bottom is good.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Chinese Sword

I know little enough about Japanese swordsmanship. When it comes to China, I'm 100% ignorant foreigner.

But I do know how incredibly cool this is:



If I could do that, I think I'd be done.

Friday, April 21, 2006

A Little Bit of Freedom

Quentin Tarantino told us to watch The Devil's Rejects, and we pretty much do whatever QT tells us to do.

Hated House of a Thousand Corpses, Rob Zombie's previous effort, of which the present film is a sequel, but a couple of folks said this one didn't stink like that one, so we gave it a shot.

And you definitely get to a point where you start asking yourself why the heck you're watching this. These are bad people. They do bad things. But nearly all of this mayhem happens in the first third of the film. The rest of the film follows our dysfunctional psycho family and the police officer sworn to track them down as he steadily becomes as bad as them. Shrug, whatever. The notion of cops becoming as dark as the criminals they seek is hardly new, and has been done much more interestingly than it is here. It's nothing to keep you watching. But something does.

Maybe it's just wondering when and how they're going to top the last outpouring of savagery, but I don't think so. This isn't a horror film. Nor is it an action film. This belongs more in the realm of American Tragedy like Bonnie and Clyde or East of Eden (just watched it the other night so it's in my head): films about how the individual is at last brought to heel on the leash of society. As the years have passed, these films have gotten more and more pessimistic, both about the nature of the individual (going from Cal's broody-but-honest-and basically-a-good-guy to Clyde Barrow's narrow-minded but good-natured to Zombie's sociopaths) and the nature of the society (steadily more authoritarian and wrong and willing to descend to the level of the bad guys).

And the film ends with a deeply American symbol: the open road, winding away to the horizon. The promise of that open road has been a staple of American cinema for many years; the Western as a form is based on that and little else. And even in this day and age, when it seems like all our horizons have been tamed, when the desolate highway is more likely to lead to a suburb or a shopping mall than to the wide open country that I love, that symbol can still echo with us, still carry its whispering promise of renewal and rediscovery.

What's changed? What makes this different or new?

The sheer immorality of Zombie's protagonists, for certain. Clyde Barrow, as depicted by Arthur Penn, may not have been super-smart, and may have thought nothing of theft and may have valued his freedom over the lives of others, but he wasn't a character looking to hurt anyone. He was capable of love and loyalty. Zombie's characters are cruel and not only devoid of compassion but openly contemptuous of such softness. They rape and torture joyously.

And yet they cleave to each other. They ARE a family and when the house goes up in flames, they pull each other to safety. Big whoop. Like the cop "going bad" it's hardly original and it's not particularly well-done. Predictably, by the end of the film, the tables have been turned on our unsavoury protagonists, and they suffer their end together, determined to see their destiny through or perish together trying.

What the heck is their destiny? Well, much like Clyde Barrow or Thelma and Louise, these clowns want their freedom. They want to be left alone to pursue their version of happiness, just like it says in the Declaration of Independence. Or wherever Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness come from. And thence lies much of the unease of the American Tragedy: to what degree can a society allow individuals to pursue their dreams? At what point does the system have to crush the person?

Total freedom is anathema to social order, even a social order that claims to enshrine liberty. Total freedom is an illusion -- one person's freedoms must inevitably impinge on another's. Zombie's characters take that to the extreme. They deprive dozens of their lives, their liberty and their happiness. Lurking deep in all this is the unease engendered by the realisation that the notion of "Freedom" is not a simple one, and that it cannot be embraced as such. An especially poignant realisation these days, as the word gets used to justify so many atrocities, as though it were an invulnerable guard against dissent and debate.

The open road still beckons. But the lure of disappearing into a vast, unbroken landscape where nobody can interfere with us has acquired a disturbing undertone, a vague question: who needs to disappear like that and what is it they're doing that they want nobody to interfere with? How can we not feel a little uneasy about people who need TOO MUCH freedom? Aren't they just as dangerous as people who need too little?

And so in the end I think I know why I watched The Devil's Rejects. Not because it's a great story (because it's not). Not because it makes thoughtful observations on humanity (because it doesn't). Nor is it pretty, or funny, or cool. But because it did manage to make me think a little bit about freedom.

And Thelma and Louise. Mm, Geena Davis.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ultimate Coolness

At last we have indisputable, quantitative proof that the 80's were cooler than any subsequent decade. Not even that. There is pretty strong evidence that the early 80's ('81 and '82 in particular) were the coolest part of the 80's. I always suspected it, but at last we have the data to end the debate.

It's all in the swords-and-sorcery movie releases. The number of swords-and-sorcery movie releases is the primary indicator of annual coolness. So I did a little IMDB digging and came up with the following:

  • 1980: Hawk the Slayer

  • 1981: The Archer, Dragonslayer, Excalibur

  • 1982: The Beastmaster, Conan the Barbarian, The Dark Crystal, Sorceress, The Sword and the Sorcerer

  • 1983: Deathstalker, Fire and Ice

  • 1984: Conan the Destroyer

  • 1985: Ladyhawke, Red Sonja

  • 1986: Highlander

  • 1987: Deathstalker II, Masters of the Universe, The Princess Bride

  • 1988: Willow


So we can see that the early 80's provided a relatively large number of coolness-indicating swords-and-sorcery movies. In 1982 you even had a movie CALLED "The Sword and the Sorcerer". How much cooler can you possibly get?

Dragonslayer was a pivotal film in my theatrical experience. I was thirteen, deeply engrossed in the mysteries of D&D (original box set, 9th printing -- the one with the chits rather than dice), and let's be honest, the chick playing Valerian was kind of hot (possibly the beginning of a lifelong fascination with scratchy-deep-voiced brunettes -- no, actually that got started by the incomparable Kate Jackson, didn't it?) (and now I've completely forgotten where this sentence was going) (Kate Jackson has that effect on me) and so it's not super surprising that seeing it once wasn't nearly enough.

My second viewing was with Dan, and provided a lesson in a) trusting one's friends and b) getting too engrossed in a movie.

There's a bit where the girl (scratchy-deep-voiced-kind-of-hot girl) (she died two years ago of ovarian cancer, apparently, which I'm sad about it, and makes me think I should stop calling her a hot girl -- Caitlin Clarke, RIP) goes looking for dragon scales and she's poking around in a cave, grabbing scales and she reaches into a dark crevice (does anyone else remember the tune "Crevice Tool"?) and

RARRR!

A little baby dragon lunges out at her.

Now, I'm a little, er, reactive in movies. In general, I guess. I lean when I play driving games. I wince at boxing matches. And I laughed so hard at those little Italian pillbugs in A Bug's Life that I fell off the couch and rolled around on the floor.

So a baby dragon lunging out of a crevice at a deceased actress is obviously a situation in which I'm likely respond with some, er, energy.

And of course Dan (having seen the film with me only a few nights before) is waiting for this moment and with a guttural roar, clamps onto my arm at just that very second.

Even today, I have to salute the impeccable timing of it. I'm not sure the people sitting around us were quite so impressed at the blood-curdling scream I let loose with as I leaped half-way to the exit. Dan laughed his evil chuckle as I collapsed in a twitching, shivering heap.

The early 80's were so good to us that by the time Willow came along we were actually a little jaded, I think. I was able to sneer. At a swords-and-sorcery film. Nowadays, well, I even wished Dungeons and Dragons II: Wrath of the Dragon God got a theatrical release.

The 90's, by contrast, provide a depressingly limited array of selections:

  • 1991: Beastmaster II

  • 1996: Dragonheart

  • 1997: Kull the Conquerer

  • 1999: The 13th Warrior


That's a whole bunch of crappiness. No wonder the 90's sucked so bad. No wonder I spent a good portion of the decade in Japan -- MUCH easier to get through days when there's an unlimited supply of Japanese wackiness on all sides of you. And let's be honest, classifying Dragonheart as swords-and-sorcery is being pretty generous. Not to mention classifying The 13th Warrior as ANYTHING BUT TOTAL CRAP.

That said, the 90's did give us Xena: Warrior Princess, and any decade that features Lucy Lawless kicking butt can't be considered a total loss. And the 90's were the breakout decade for Hong Kong cinema over here, and so we had Brigitte Lin and Tsui Hark to get us through the rough patches.

But things aren't looking very up this decade, so far.

  • 2000: Dungeons and Dragons

  • 2002: The Scorpion King


On the other hand, you could perhaps argue that those films suck even more than Dragonheart. You'd be wrong, but you could try it. It is not possible for a film that features Kelly Hsu and The Rock to rank lower than a Sean Connery-voiced badly-animated digital dragon. True, The Scorpion King falls apart at the half-way point, and has the Blade Steven Dorff problem (who keeps thinking that scrawny dweeby guys provide sufficiently intimidating opponents for impressively buff, demonstratably bad-ass heroes?), but the first half IS pretty fun. And both the principals are sure trying hard.

Careful film-goers may notice some apparent holes in the selection here. "Where is Lord of the Rings, for crying out loud?" Well, I didn't include it. I tried to stick to theatrically-released swords-and-sorcery that achieved some measure of popularity (based on the theory that a film that's released but nobody watches is as silent as that lonely tree in the forest). And The Lord of the Rings ain't swords-and-sorcery, sorry.

No.

And anyway, even if you add it in, the 80's STILL kick ass.

Now, of course, sword-and-sorcery has prospered in the world of video games, but still, there's no excuse for not having hordes of pics featuring dragons, screaming women and doughty warriors. But alas, we suffer.

So who's going to step up? Who's going to deliver us from this appalling lack of coolness we seem irretrievably mired in? Not Uwe Boll, obviously, no matter how much he thinks himself appointed to the task. Not the folks currently grinding the Dungeons and Dragons brand into movie hell.

Well, all I can say is that Steph and I are working on a solution. Obviously many factors are beyond our control, but we're doing what we can. Those who wish to help out may volunteer their efforts.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Conan vs. Icarium

I spent a holiday recently reading, among other things, The Conquering Sword of Conan and The Bonehunters. Both of them excellent reads, by the way. But a similarity that turned into a difference between them intrigued me.

Both talk about the fragility of 'civilization'. But they mean very different things by that. Howard's Conan is the savage heart unchecked, ready at any time to leap into hot-blooded fury. Much like Erikson's Icarium, who is the kindest of people and yet unleashes such epic-level rage that he has laid waste entire societies. What's the difference?

"Barbarism always triumphs" says Howard -- the hollow assertion of the 'civilized' man who knows his people have unjustly eradicated one 'barbaric' culture after another. For what is Conan but Howard's apology to the Lakota, to the Cherokee, to the Hopi? Conan allows Howard to indulge in the myth that the genocide practiced by his nation was not as final as it really was -- that the victory of American Forces over one out-matched nation after another is an anomaly that will be set right by the inevitable forces of, uh, inevitability. That not only does there exist hope for the exterminated 'barbarians' but that their rebirth and eventual victory is assured.

Again and again in the Conan stories Howard refers to the primacy of 'barbaric' strengths, and of the fragility of 'civilization'. Eventually all our 'civilized' accomplishments turn hollow, our supposed strengths revealed to be weaknesses, and only those who retain their 'natural' barbaric strength will survive.

That this flies in the face of all recorded history concerns Howard not at all. Such a view of civilization lends poignancy to its efforts. It's less horrific to exterminate an entire nation if they (or some other 'barbaric' group indistinguishable from them) are destined to rise again and cast down the civilization that brought them low.

Of course Howard is far too intelligent and talented a writer to settle for easy conclusions in this or any other question, but it has to be said that, especially in the light of his historical expertise with respect to the 'settling' of North America, his bold assertion that "barbarism always triumphs" is a politically loaded statement.

Erikson sounds a similar horn in his "Malazan Books of the Fallen" series. Civilization here falls away readily, it is but a thin veneer over the savage animality that truly drives men. But Erikson's worldview is notably different from Howard's in two ways. Firstly, Erikson does not divide nations into barbaric or civilized. In the world of the Malazan Empire, ALL societies stand on the brink of savagery. All men bear within them both possibilities equally. Secondly, Erikson looks on the advent of savagery with none of Howard's hand-rubbing glee. You can sense how thrilling Howard finds the inevitable onslaught of barbarism, the relief that comes every time Conan discards the trappings of the civilized world and reverts to the savage within. Erikson sees very little to enjoy in that onslaught.

But then Howard's savage is very different from Erikson's. Conan is far more noble than any civilized man can hope to be. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of 'civilized' men in Howard that they lack moral strength. Even when good-hearted, these weak, unforged souls cannot offer the strength of conviction, the nobility of spirit that Conan possesses. In many ways, Howard's barbarians (at least, his WHITE barbarians) are more civilized than any others in Hyboria.

For Erikson, civilization means a world where the more noble inclinations of man can thrive and provide frameworks for justice and compassion. Without some guiding order, it seems, people are stranded in a nightmarish world of horror and brutality. And yet that very order can only arise out of the individual actions of determined folks -- folks stranded in the chaos of savagery.

When Kalam Mekhar assists Keneb and Minala, when Ganoes Paran makes his decision about the Chained God, when Adjunct Tavore returns to the army that has claimed her, when Itkovian kneels before the T'lan Imass, they are choosing courage over fear, compassion over calculation, and faith over suspicion.

Erikson recognizes that civilization requires strength to maintain itself, that a balancing act must always be conducted between freedom and tyranny. But where the Conan stories celebrate only individual strength, Erikson's remarkable work celebrates much, much more: the deeply entwined relationships that influence all our decisions and that provide us with the real strength. The strength that preserves civilization.

Because as much as Howard may wish (or WANT to wish) otherwise, the piercing truth of history is painfully clear: civilization ALWAYS triumphs.

Well, maybe the truth is that 'civilized' cultures always triumph over 'savage' ones. Again and again the ancient pattern plays out: the violent, dangerous nomads are brought to heel and at last consumed by the determined farmers. Be they Hittites or Lakota or Mongols, the 'savages' are always overwhelmed in the end. Those stubborn little farmers always live to see the smug ranchers put down. The question of who is truly civilized may be hard to answer, but there is no question who triumphs in the passage of history.

But at the same time, that which is savage in all of us is always near the surface. Whether it comes out in violence or in subtler forms of cruelty, it lurks waiting for our vigilance to lapse. We are all of us Icarium, ready to unleash pain and suffering whenever we lose control of ourselves. But then maybe we're all also Conan, full of strength and nobility if only we will release ourselves from the bonds that pain us.

Saturday, April 8, 2006

Animal Talk for Meghan

Meghan is our newly-four-year-old niece. A year ago we couldn't figure out what to get our nephew Tanner for his 7th birthday, until Steph had the bright idea of making him a CD of dance tunes, since his mom told us he liked to dance. The CD was a big gift, and a few months later Tanner's older brother Dillon got a CD of classic punk/new wave tunes.

So now it's Meghan's turn. Meghan gets a CD called Animal Talk:

The track listing for Animal Talk is as follows:

"Animal Talk" - Twink
"The Lonely Bull" - Herb Alpert
"Asleep In A Snake Basket" - Twink
"Day-O" - Harry Belafonte
"5-Piece Chicken Dinner" - The Beastie Boys
"Signifyin' Monkey" - Oscar Brown, Jr.
"Pussy Cat" - Twink
"Tiger Rag" - Kid Ory
"Three Little Birds" - Bob Marley And The Wailers
"Sleepy Rabbit" - The Tropic of Cancer
"The Pink Panther Theme" - Hollywood Studio Orchestra
"Funky Cat" - James Knight and The Butlers
"Hoppity Jones" - Twink
"Rock Dog" - Swoop
"Cow" - Gene Loves Jezebel
"Garden Bird" - Cutman-Booche
"Catnip" - Twink
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" - The Tokens
"Aqua Boogie ( A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)" - Parliament

I like to think I'm the first person to put Parliment, Gene Loves Jezebel, Harry Belafonte and The Beastie Boys on a single disc. I'm probably not, but it pleases me to imagine I am.

I stole the cover image from somebody on deviantart.com.

Coming soon: thoughts on barbarians and possibly pictures of monkeys. Stay tuned.