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Another Post About Tea

Thrack often listens to gaming or gaming adjacent podcasts, and between driving around together or putting it on while cooking or whatever, I end up hearing snatches of them fairly often.  Recently someone sent in a question for the Tested podcast about a desire to get into tea.  And their advice was utterly abysmal and filled me with sadness.

There was some waffling over whether an awesome teamaker was worth the cost (fair enough if you don’t really love tea), and some good advice about being careful about the precise temperature of the water to get the best result with leaves, but then they yielded to the supposed expertise of Gary Whitta.  I’m sorry, but no, listening to what he said, Gary is not “into tea” by any stretch; he’s just English and there’s a huge difference.

I’m not saying that all his complaints are wrong because when I look at the tea section of any normal grocery store, I’m surrounded by boxes of teabags where only a third of them could even be rightfully considered tea in the first place.

What kind of tea do you want?

There’s more than one kind?

We have blueberry, raspberry, ginseng, sleepy time, green tea, green tea with lemon, green tea with lemon and honey, liver disaster, ginger with honey, ginger without honey, vanilla almond, white truffel, blueberry chamomile, vanilla walnut, constant comment and… earl grey.

Did you make some of those up?

That’s a completely valid complaint, and frankly one I’ve made myself.  But that doesn’t mean that simply coming from a place like the United Kingdom grants you immediate expertise in tea, and it certainly doesn’t mean that because you have a box of PG Tips in your cupboard, you are “into tea.”  (I can get boxes of it loose in my local American grocery store, next to better teas like this loose assam.)

If you want to say that your nation’s approach to tea is superior because there is some sort of standard cup of tea that’s marginally better than a bag of black Lipton, that basic cup of tea really has to be noticeably better.  Just to make sure I could say this, I picked up a box of loose PG Tips tea at my local supermarket to see if it’s a significant improvement.  PG Tips is sort of strange to me on a basic level because I expect tea of a certain caliber to tell me what the hell it is.  “Black” is not a sufficiently descriptive type of tea, but is instead simply a broader category in which types fall.  So already I was suspicious of PG Tips because it’s a blend of a bunch of different types to maintain a consistent taste batch to batch and year to year.

I’ve come to the conclusion that PGs is the tea equivalent of diner coffee.  You can’t be into tea if you think this is the shining example of good tea.  Bah, humbug.

To begin with, the tea leaves (although they’ve called “loose”) are crunched and homogenized such that they make a too-fine consistency.  It means you have to treat them with particular caution that you don’t with good normal loose tea.  The results are consistently more bitter and strong than the alternative, which means I have to reduce the steeping time on a wondrous device designed to produce optimum flavor with minimum bitterness.  I like strong tea, but when your tea produces more bitterness that other loose blacks, there is something wrong.  I’ve discovered that steeped leaves from PG tips look disturbingly like coffee grounds rather than rehydrated leaves after you let them infuse; that makes me feel like there is just something wrong with them.

So I have determined that my box of PG Tips is fit only to make iced tea, which I sweeten anyway and then pour over a full cup of ice (which has the benefit of diluting the bitterness further).  I’m far more impressed by a couple lovely loose teas I’ve picked up from the grocery store that are delicious but also tell me what the hell sort of leaves are in them.  I don’t always feel like the same type of tea, and if I’m in the mood for a darjeeling, or an oolong or a ceylon or whatever, I want to be able to group teas by their flavor.

Plus I really don’t feel like the standard cup of tea you’d have in England with the requisite milk and sugar represents a terribly sophisticated tea palate.  A cup like this with milk and sugar is very nice and has its place, but I find as I get older (and especially now that I can make truly exceptional tea with my infrastructure) that sweetening it much at all masks too much of the flavor of the tea.  There are several teas that I don’t sweeten at all because they simply don’t need anything else.

I think I’m going to make myself some ceylon now.

Stormtroopers Don’t Know Anything About Lasers

Movies about time travel far too often get bogged down with the actual time travel and paradoxes.  It’s like there is never a way to make a time travel movie where the main focus isn’t the actual traveling in time part.  Sometimes it’s awkward or broken, and sometimes it’s pulled off masterfully as in Primer.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie about time travel where the actual time travel isn’t important.  And it’s awesome.  (Which is probably why it won the Screenwriting award at Sundance this year.)

Before I go on, I should probably point out that yes, the film is based on the internet meme famous ad from a magazine that was added to fill space.  They even had the guy who wrote it make a small cameo in the film, which is always awesome.  The whole story of the film is basically, what if that was real?

While searching for articles in a meeting, a staff writer (Jake Johnson) and two interns (lead Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) are tapped to investigate the presumed loon seeking a companion to go back in time.  Of course, only the interns go intending to research the story; the staff writer’s motive of hooking up with an old girlfriend occupy the main sideplot, and his pursuit of a high school fling is often done at the expense of helping do the story.

This plotline is actually one of my superficially favorite things about the movie; it has the potential to be trite or sappy by forcing a happy ending that doesn’t match with the real world but they decided to make it feel human and believable.  It adds a nice bittersweet tone against the main plot and characters.  It alternately adds realism and humor to balance the emotional progression in the film.

At the Q&A following the film with the director, he noted that they were careful not to let any portion of the film feel too heavy, and I think they did a masterful job.  It has a good balance and is very, very funny.  It’s also incredibly geeky; I’m not sure if it’s just my generation growing up and creating things or whether we’ve become a large commercial demographic (probably a mix of two, really), but I’m always happy to see geeky and nerdy shit making its way into mainstream stuff.

For example stormtroopers.  They wouldn’t know shit about lasers because, as screenwriter Derek Connolly pointed out in the dialogue, they’re blue collar workers.  The movie is filled with this sort of quip, and that fills my geeky heart with joy.  Actually, pretty much everything in this movie fills me with joy.

I’m hoping it gets a decently wide film distribution because it really is wonderful.  Hell, I’ll probably devote another blog post to the movie once there’s a trailer circulating.  Like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, this is another example of how what comes out of Sundance doesn’t have to have a strong indie-movie stink* but sometimes can be just awesome gems.

Totally as an aside, I also loved the time machine itself.  It’s a boat.  I have never in my whole life pictured a time machine that’s a boat.  It was also incredibly neat to look at, and apparently was a collaborative art project assembled by local metal smiths and later disassembled by the artists to get their pieces back.

*Not that I don’t like indie movies, but they are definitely not for everyone.  For example, I loved Weekend, but the fact that it had no music during the movie is just one of the indie markers that some people find offputting.

Skin

My mom used to work as a gate agent at the Salt Lake City International Airport and would often come home with stories, some good, some bad, some absolutely horrible beyond words.  I still remember a lot of the horrible ones, but one of them came to mind after I watched Skin on Netflix streaming.

She was working at the Info Counter (doesn’t exist anymore, but this was probably late-90’s), and was looking out at lines of passengers, when she heard a South African white woman (loudly) saying,

Black people aren’t people.  Black people aren’t people.

To her companion in fucking evil and apparently just hilarious laughter.  And once my mom did some quick line evaluation and realized that this woman would be her next customer, she simply couldn’t take it.  There was no way should politely help a customer that had and was still engaging in this kind of hate speech, despite having an incredible talent for public relations.  (Agents were expected to deal with and tolerate massive amounts of unprovoked verbal abuse, and you should have heard the stories of entitled misogyny that she came home with.)  So she quickly made arrangements to take her upcoming break, and had to walk away.

At the time that she told me this, I was so horrified and stunned that I simply couldn’t wrap my brain around it.  Apartheid was something I understood from textbooks just like Jim Crow here, but some part of my brain didn’t want to accept that people truly did think, feel and behave that way.  I’m not saying we live in anything but a racist country even now, but we’ve changed our racism away from the open brazen sort to the quiet, insidious kind that’s harder to prove and endlessly tiring to root out.  The kind that you can avoid seeing if you’re in the right ethnic group: white privilege.

I think that’s why movies like Skin are so important.  For too many of us, history, even recent history, is abstract and we can’t be bothered to be angry about continuing injustices because we don’t understand what it feels like.  Films like this both educate and personalize injustice.

Skin brings to light the illogical horror of apartheid era race relations by following Sandra Laing, the unusually dark daughter of Afrikaner parents, as she navigated a system designed to simultaneously uplift (based on her white heritage and classification) and oppress her (based on her physical appearance).  The denial with which Afrikaners in the film approach the idea that they themselves are largely biracial is something beyond my comprehension.

In fact, the whole point of the film is to shed light on how the incomprehensible cannot be ignored just because it is painful.  It is a film that is not subtle, but doesn’t need voiceovers or far-fetched plot points to get the message across.  I’m not sure there is a way to make a film like this subtle, because the real oppression is so horrible that anyone with an ounce of empathy will share in outrage and anger.  Like Rabbit-Proof Fence, Skin wants us to know that racist policies (in these cases borne from imperial rule) have real world consequences for families and the daily lives of fellow human beings.  (Being based on real world events with real people helps in this regard as well.)

Skin doesn’t just want us to shake our heads about the shame that was past oppression (but seriously, the first race inclusive elections were in 1994, so we’re not talking about the far past here, either).  We are meant to think about the lasting impact that racist actions will have on others and hopefully make better choices with understanding and compassion.

The film has its moments of happiness, but they are often bittersweet or short-lived.  As she ages, Sandra is less and less able to hide from cruel treatment behind her parents, she is reclassified multiple times, humiliated and beaten.  Once she is old enough that her parents start looking for suitors, she’s exposed to young men who at their most benevolent are willing to get to know her despite her appearance.  At worst, a man feels that since she’s going to struggle to find another Afrikaner suitor, he is entitled to do with her what he wants; and after fighting him off, her father turns a blind eye to bruises.

Eventually Sandra falls for a vegetable seller who unfortunately is black.  He doesn’t treat her badly for her appearance, unlike other suitors, teachers and peers, but genuinely tries to make her happy.  Her love of Petrus leads her to be violently disowned, imprisoned, and eventually forced to hide her official classification for fear of separation from her new family.  Living with her new community is hard, and they face forced relocation.  Relationships are strained and eventually Sandra leaves Petrus with her children and finds a way to survive on her own.  Sandra’s story is one of determination and struggle, and she is certainly an admirable but sad character.

But through all of this struggle where Sandra never gives up, she never stops loving her parents, particularly her mother.  But she knows that apartheid laws and regulations (and the hate filled attitudes behind them) have permanently destroyed hope of real reconciliation with those she loves.  When interviewed about the beginning of the end of apartheid, she says that it is too late for her.

But it’s not too late for us.

How Awesome is Tucker and Dale vs Evil?

So awesome.

Thrack and I used to be able to catch more movies during Sundance in the past, but for the last few years, we’ve mainly seen a couple of the competition winners at the end.  So we weren’t able to see to Tucker and Dale vs. Evil when it was at Sundance and the short art house run didn’t work with our schedule, so we finally watched it over the weekend once it was released on disc.  It did not disappoint.

If you haven’t heard of the movie before and want to know what it’s about, think hilarious inverse Deliverance where everything is basically misunderstanding.  (Side note, I prefer to think of Deliverance as friends once collectively re-imagined it with running commentary: a zombie movie.  Try it, it’s fun!)  If you need more inducement, it stars Wash from Firefly and Sock from Reaper.

He’s heavy for half a guy.

Seriously, watch it.

A Good RPG Will Steal Your Life

I have not actually died, nor have I suffered hospitalization.  I have, however, been playing a JRPG that has sucked hours and hours of my life away in joyous questing.  It’s actually a game that I should not be able to play, actually, thanks to Nintendo of America.

Xenoblade Chronicles is a Japanese ass JRPG that incorporates a decent number of MMO mechanics, and the result is weirdly awesome.  It’s only loosely connected to the Xenosaga games as an ultra-prequel; an early title was Monado: the Beginning of the World.  It has gotten rave reviews pretty much everywhere and is fully translated and localized into English, so all that’s left is the slight shifts involved in changing to a different region-l0cked format.  It’s one of the best RPGs to come out in a long while and is exclusive to the Wii, so it seems like a no-brainer that they’d happily jump at the chance to get sales from North American gamers.  (All the work of translation and voice recording is done, after all.)  But apparently none of that makes financial sense to the regional corporate overlords, because they have announced that it will not be coming to a store near you.

I don’t pirate games, but I pirated this one.  And I don’t feel the slightest bit bad, because they gave me no legitimate way to play the game.  So it’s running through brute-force emulation on the main PC, and it looks pretty good actually.

But it’s also kind of monopolizing my life, gobbling up my free time like a ravenous beast.  Because it’s incredibly fucking addictive; it’s as if the game knows exactly what sorts of bizarre completionistic compulsions exist in my head and is actively exploiting them.

It’s enormous.  Not just the world, which is definitely huge (made manageable by a good fast travel system and the ability to save wherever) but there’s a lot going on in this game:

  1. sizeable party to shuffle and equip
  2. complicated system of individual talents to level up and overlapping skills trees of passive abilities that characters can equip from other characters (depending on how close you are to the other character)
  3. equipment gem slots and gem crafting from monster drops and mining (yes, actual mining)
  4. an active battle system that borrows from MMO elements, where not only are offensive debuffs useful, they’re necessary
  5. some quasi-quick-time button presses during combat to keep things extra busy
  6. an absolutely staggeringly large map with tons of hidden nooks and crannies, tons of hidden unique monsters, quest items, special collectibles, surprise quests, tucked away NPCs/merchants, and “heart-to-heart” locations that tie into a mad affection web
  7. seriously, this map is huge, I can’t even explain how large it is, but the fast travel is absolutely necessary
  8. bizarre diagram representation of interpersonal relationships with your party characters that you improve gradually over time to achieve better results in party collaboration
  9. a system of gift giving I just can’t seem to figure out
  10. an even crazier looking web of NPC happiness that affects your ability to get quests and trade for items
  11. a RPG of where you talk not just to everyone or even everyone twice, you talk them again and again and again
  12. money sink/grind encourager where you rebuilt an entire city to former glory on an ongoing basis during the story, even encouraging NPCs elsewhere to move there
  13. glowing blue collectables in each new zone that you use to fill in a stamp collecting element (yes, really)
  14. enough side quests of all shapes and sizes to kill a small elephant

So there’s a lot to take in.

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You Don’t Need a Belt Buckle If You Don’t Have a Belt

Last night, Thrack and I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  I haven’t seen it in so long that most of the details had faded into fuzzy notions of plot, so when I watched it again I could help but be struck by a few things.

The first is that the costuming and set design feel much older and jarring than I remember.  The later Star Trek films with the original series cast have costuming that feels very different and that stay fairly consistent over time.  Even though it came out in 1979, it feels like it could have been a few years earlier.  Space heels and wide collar sweater miniskirt are indescribably bad, but what is with all the open uniform shirts that appear and disappear without a lot of consistency?  Did the air conditioning go out and suddenly everyone needed to be in cool short sleeved shirts?

Thrack observed that it was clear that the ideas for the Next Generation series were already sort of tumbling around.  And looking at the way that the ship had been redesigned, I have to agree.  The engineering section has a lot of elements that carry over to the Next Generation ship design, although it didn’t start for almost another decade.

What I was almost shocked by was how simple the movie was.  As a kid it didn’t seem obvious to me that a good portion of the movie involved slow pan shots of what were super cool new visual effects at the time.  Often with people in space suits floating around freely, without any sense what the hell those people are doing or why they would just be chilling out in space.  It’s actually a kind of boring plot, and I believe I have the moral of the story now:

Never, ever build and send out probes, it will never go well.

Or alternatively:

Don’t build Brainaic.  He will come back and cause problems.

A Final Thought on Deus Ex

So we’ve finished playing through Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  And it’s a great game with a very small but.

It’s a game that feels very polished; it has one of those engaging plots where even when you read every email, listen to all dialogue and explore all the corners you can find, you are still left with the feeling that there is a greater depth to the plots around you.  For example, partway through the game, Adam Jensen escapes the FEMA facility below Detroit, but you never quite get the whole story of what they planned to do with the detention facility and its eventual prisoners.  Much of the game is like that, because it’s a game built around conspiracies of powerful shadow figures calling themselves the Illuminati.  (With plenty of nods toward the first Deus Ex game where one of the members broke away to form the Majestic 12.)  It simply wouldn’t feel like a credible conspiracy game if you had all the answers.

The character design is varied and aside from the unsurprising limitation of unnatural looking arm gestures (which I think will last until someone writes better algorithms for natural looking movement) the characters all feel pretty real.  When you dig into the home or office of a character, it feels like they put real effort into making them seem distinctive with little touches: notes, emails, posters, etc.  Sometimes disturbingly so.  Because I’ll be honest, I don’t want to know what precisely the Dutchman wants to do with the broccoli and lube on his post-it shopping list.  Zucchini I would understand, but – you know, this is getting off topic.

I’m also very impressed with the overall design and gameplay.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is a game that provides you with different avenues to accomplish the same goals in levels.  Deus Ex also rewards you for being slow and methodical, finding hidden supplies, codes, Praxis software and backdoors.  But that’s only the overall game design, not the three boss fights that were literally handed to another developer to put together.

And those boss fights are fucking terrible.  There is no way to talk your way out of a boss encounter, even if you take speech enhancements early.  And the boss encounters give absolutely no feedback on whether your attempted strategy is doing a goddamned thing.

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