Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year in Gaming!

In my quest to continue accurately cataloging my media habits, particularly at year's end, I'm writing a "year in review" post for board games and video games for the first time. (Although, upon further examination, I didn't even write year in review posts for movies or TV either of the past two years, so I'm starting to reclaim those as well.) I figured it would be easier to work both traditional (ie. board) and electronic (ie. video) games into one post, and to work it into a number of smaller lists that will give a clearer picture of what my year was like in both areas. I feel, though, that in the past year, I've really made board games a hobby more intentionally. I'm also starting to reclaim being a video gamer, especially since I now have a computer that will play new games for the first time in about five years. I'm considering buying a PS3 soon-ish in the lull before I can buy a Wii U, but for now I'm still a few years behind on games. Maybe 2012 is the year that will change. But on with the lists!

Board games I've added to my collection this year: Bean Trader (still haven't played it), Chrononauts, Citadels, Dixit, Dominion, Innovation, Puerto Rico, San Juan

Other board games I've played for the first time in the past year (all of which I really enjoyed): Agricola, Alhambra, Power Grid, Tikal

Favourite board games right now: Agricola, Dominion, Innovation

Top 10 board games I'd like to try: 7 Wonders, Glory To Rome, Jaipur, Jump Gate, Lost Cities, Race For The Galaxy, Small World, Tikal II: The Lost Temple, Troyes, Zooloretto

Video games I've downloaded (or will soon download) on Steam: Bastion, Braid, Limbo, Portal, Portal 2

Five classic games I played (or replayed) this year: Illusion of Gaia (SNES), Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Master's Quest (N64/GC), Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64) (way unfinished), Super Mario RPG (SNES), Zoda's Revenge: Star Tropics 2 (NES - Virtual Console) (unfinished)

Five Wii games I played most this year: Donkey Kong Country Returns (unfinished), Kirby's Epic Yarn (with my wife), Fluidity (WiiWare) unfinished), Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (which is consuming most of my time now), Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (unfinished)

10 games to finish after Skyward Sword: And Yet It Moves (WiiWare), DKC Returns (Wii), Fluidity (WiiWare), Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (GC), Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS), Mega Man 9 and 10 (WiiWare), Metroid Prime 3 (Wii), Pikmin 2 (GC), Star Tropics 2 (VC)

Top 6 games to play (or re-play) next: Kid Icarus (NES), Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GC), Lego Batman (Wii), Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 and Years 5-7

Top 5 WiiWare games to try: LostWinds, LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias, NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1, You, Me, & The Cubes

Favourite video gaming experiences of the year:
1. Being immersed in Skyward Sword in the past week (23 hours in 5 days so far) and remembering the joy of exploring a new Zelda game
2. Replaying Ocarina of Time during the summer. It's still one of the best of all-time.
3. Learning how Portal works.

So with all that in mind, I'm hoping for a much "gamier" 2012!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011: The Year in Television

It feels strange to write a year in review piece about television. Not only does "2011" encompass parts of two seasons of many network shows (which seems awkward to me anyway), but much of my viewing in a given year focuses on seasons (or shows) from before 2011. With that in mind, I have not crafted a top 10, per se, but I have opted to create a number of smaller lists that I think will give a fairly clear picture of what my viewing year was like.

Shows I've added this year: Breaking Bad, Justified, The Shield, Sherlock (dramas); Better Off Ted, The Big C, Modern Family, New Girl, Parks and Recreation (comedies)

Other shows I'm still watching: Chuck (which I'm glad finishes within a month), Dexter (despite the fact that Season 6 was the worst of the series) (dramas); Survivor (reality); Community, Futurama, 30 Rock (comedies)

Shows I've given up on:
Glee - I stopped watching regularly halfway through the second season, then I blitzed through it and appreciated it. This year, I'm not missing it at all. Call it "Glee fatigue", call it "Glee is SO 2010"...I'm just not missing it.
Big Bang Theory - Season 4 was weak, but this season has been terribly unfunny (the bird was the only funny part). Unless something happens that really grabs my attention back, I'm done with BBT.
The Office - Okay, so I gave it up right after Jim and Pam's wedding early in Season 6, but I'll still count it here.

"Buzz" shows I probably won't ever end up watching (ie. shows that are appearing on many top 10 lists, so I feel the need to include here so as not to ignore them, despite a lack of affinity for their style/genre/content): American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, The Killing, Raising Hope, Shameless

Five "new" dramas (either that started in or came to prominence in 2011) that I will check out soon (in order of priority): Homeland (I just haven't had time yet), Boss, Luck (premieres in a month), Treme (maybe I should just forget about it), and Falling Skies (maybe if S2 has more buzz...)

Five "new" comedies to check out (in order of priority): House of Lies (a comedy that stars Don Cheadle and this guy), Episodes, Portlandia, Enlightened, Up All Night (I enjoyed the first couple of episodes, but it didn't really grab me yet), Bob's Burgers

Favourite comedies on TV right now (in order):
1. Community - Despite the awkwardness of Season 3, it's still the funniest show on TV.
2. Parks and Recreation - Entertainment 720 was a comedy goldmine.
3. Modern Family - The show has a great groove going, and it should be good for a while.

Favourite dramatic seasons I watched this year (in order):
1. Justified Season 2 (2011) - Raylan's feud with Mags and the Bennetts was captivating until the last scene, and it might be one of the
2. The Shield Season 5 (2006) - The series was brilliant all the way through, but it was this season that pitted Vic against IA's relentless Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker) in one of the greatest battles of wills ever. The season set up the conclusion of the series and provided one of the all-time heartbreaking moments for any drama ever (seriously), and was the best of the series.
3. Breaking Bad Season 3 (2010) - The year Walter White really broke bad working for Fring. I'll probably have Season 4 done within a few weeks, judging by how I've watched the rest of the show, but Season 3 kept on accelerating the tension, even when it seemed impossible.

Next drama projects (ie. shows to watch through) after I finish Breaking Bad Season 4 and maybe rewatching Justified Season 2, in order of priority: The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Burn Notice, Eureka (I expect I might get through the first two, maybe three).

Next comedy projects, in order of priority: Louie, Bored To Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Dead Set, The Big C (last half of Season 1 and S2), Archer, Hiccups (I feel like I still need to give it a shot, being a sitcom by Brent Butt)

Next Netflix projects, in order of priority (unless one of the aforementioned shows pops up there, in which case it may bump some of these down): Kings (finish), The Big C (finish), Mad Men, Luther, Jekyll, Life

And finally, five TV events for which I'm excited in 2012: the Season 3 premiere of Justified (Jan. 17), the finale of Chuck (Jan. 27), the return of Community (eventually), the last season of Breaking Bad (summer), and the premiere of Survivor: One World (Feb. 15).

There you have it: my year in television!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The onset of awards season

It's about this time every year that the awards season really begins to coalesce and aspiring critics like me craft their lists of movies to see over the next few months, whenever they finally open in their city. There are usually about twenty total films that end up being part of the conversation in any given year (give or take a few); of those, I usually end up seeing around ten by the time the Oscars finally take place. I've already seen a few of the contenders for major awards (Moneyball, The Tree of Life, Beginners, Bridesmaids, Young Adult), but there are a number more that I have either not yet seen, am waiting to see, or feel the need to see out of some (likely misplaced) sense of obligation as a cinephile. Here are my quick takes on seventeen movies in the buzz that I haven't seen yet, organized by rough categories.

"True Grit": The movies that were in my sights regardless of the buzz.
The Descendants - Sideways was brilliant, and it's been too long to wait for the new Payne movie.
A Dangerous Method - Cronenberg dispenses with illusions and goes straight to filming Freud. Looks great.
The Ides of March - I still haven't seen Clooney's political take (thriller? satire?), but the cast alone (Clooney, Gosling, Giamatti, and Hoffman are four of my favourite working actors) was enough to make me notice.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Fincher's just twisted enough to pull it off and make it palatable.

"Winter's Bone": Independent (or foreign) movies that I might not have heard about if not for the buzz, but that are probably up my alley anyway.
Rampart - I'm really interested to see how Harrelson's take on the "L.A. crooked cop" compares to Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey (The Shield), which was originally going to be entitled "Rampart" and was based on the same scandal.
Drive - Yes, I still haven't seen it.
The Flowers of War - China's entry for foreign language film - its most expensive film production ever - concerns the massacre at Nanking in 1937 and stars Christian Bale. Of course I'll see it.

"The Aviator": Movies that probably wouldn't interest me if it weren't for awards buzz
The Artist - I might have wanted to see this one anyway, but it's moved up my list because of all of the talk.
Hugo - Scorsese's pedigree meant I probably would have seen it anyway, but the buzz just bumps it higher.
War Horse - Spielbergian sentimentality is always a risk (just look at his filmography since Saving Private Ryan), but I may end up seeing this one eventually.
J. Edgar - Eastwood is usually strong, but the main draw here is DiCaprio.
Midnight In Paris - Not usually a fan of Allen (or Wilson outside of Wes Anderson films), but I'll probably see this one anyway.
My Week with Marilyn - Could this be the performance that finally gets Williams the love she deserves? It seems more and more likely all the time.

"Precious": Movies I'll probably ignore anyway:
The Help - Do I really need to watch this? I think I could get what I need to see from the trailer.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Might be authentically moving, but also looks like very manufactured sentimentality.
The Iron Lady - Looks tediously boring; when the war over the Falkland Islands is your key conflict, you know it's not going to be an exciting movie.

"Rachel Getting Married": On the radar, will likely see eventually, but not likely in theatres. Coincidentally (or not?), these are all possible nominees for Best Actress.
Martha Marcy May Marlene - I think I got the title right.
We Need To Talk About Kevin

And then there's the anomaly of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which is getting rave reviews (thanks to Brad Bird's direction) and may steal my attention for an evening in the midst of all the heady arthousey films. It looks like I've got some "work" ahead of me!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Radical Realignment

The NHL recently approved a radical plan for divisional realignment by a 26-4 vote. Both Katie Baker from Grantland and Eric Duhatschek from the Globe and Mail have done a respectable job analyzing the decision, but I have a few comments on the development that I haven't read in an analysis yet. I've organized my thoughts into positive, negative, and "interesting" (points to observe or questions that linger).

First, here are the approved conferences:
Conference A: Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
Conference B: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
Conference C: Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto
Conference D: Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

1. Every team plays every other team twice each year. One of the biggest criticisms of the current system is that some teams would play each other only every few years, so marquee players like Crosby, Ovechkin, and Stamkos would not visit every year. The new plan amends that oversight, and 58 games are assigned to playing each other team twice.

2. Bigger divisions mean fewer games against each divisional rival. Under the current system, divisional rivals play each other eight times in a season, and then occasionally in the playoffs. There are 24 games to divide between the other six or seven teams in the division, meaning that each team will have no more than six games against any one opponent in a season. It should keep the rivalries fresher and more exciting!

3. More flexibility for future franchise movement. Maybe the NHL is already planning for one of the Florida teams to relocate to Southern Ontario, but the fact that this has been one of the top benefits cited thus far by the league is slightly concerning.

4. Playoff rivalries. Quick: name the top three playoff rivalries since 1999. My votes: Toronto-Ottawa, Montreal-Boston, Vancouver-Chicago. Pittsburgh-Philadelphia, Boston-Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh-Washington might also be mentioned in the discussion, but there are not many more - if any - solid candidates. Each of those top three rivalries were built by consecutive years of meeting in the playoffs, and all three grew over time. The odds of those rematches happening, however, was fairly low, and the league's seeding format did not allow for as many rivalries to develop unless chance (or fate) brought them together. The new format will have the first two rounds remain in-conference (formerly division), so there will be more chance for those rivalries to develop.

1. The end of the low-seed Cinderella runs. The 1999 Sabres, 2003 Mighty Ducks, the 2004 Flames, the 2006 Oilers, and the 2010 Flyers and Canadiens defied expectations and made runs deep into the playoffs as 6-, 7-, or 8- seeds, though none of those teams actually won the Cup. Though I'm not disappointed to see the re-seeding of teams go by the wayside, it won't be the same without the Cinderella stories; I suppose this may be moot once the first "fourth-place team" makes a run to the equivalent of the current Conference Finals.

Okay, so that's barely a negative, and I can't think of any more. But there are a few interesting points to consider:

1. The shift from "divisions" to "conferences": I'm not sure why they did this, exactly, but this move from using the term "conference" instead of "division" seems possibly fraught with issues in the future. Of utmost concern is that the playoff system is as-of-yet undetermined.

2. The NHL can spin the almost unanimous vote in a positive light when compared to the mess that has emerged in the NBA in the Chris Paul debacle over the past week.

3. It seems like this would be a perfect opportunity for the league to finally make the long-overdue transition in points assigned for different game outcomes. I'm in favour of every game being worth three points, rather than some being worth 2 and some 3, as has been the case in the era of the shootout. Those three points get divided according to the outcome: a regulation win is three points, a win after regulation (overtime or shootout) is two points, and a loss after regulation (OTL or SOL) is 1 point. Do it now, NHL!

4. The Florida teams in the "northeast" division. I'm not sure if rivalries can develop with their northern conference-mates, and perhaps this is just priming one of those teams to move into Southern Ontario.

5. It remains to be seen how the history of the league will be interpreted and how this shift will affect the future analysis of the NHL's development. The Wikipedia entry divides the league's almost-century long span into four quarter-century-long eras: Early years (1917-1941); Original Six (1942-1967); Expansion (1967-1992); and Current Era (1992-present). It seems mostly correct, but I think that the "Current Era" should start in 1993, when the league switched from having a President to a Commissioner. If you break down the eras more, you end up with 10-15 year eras, with the exception of the Original Six, each of which have distinct markers: 1917-1926 (early years); 1926-1941 (franchises established and solidly in place); 1941-1967 (Original Six); 1967-1980 (expansion and competition with the WHA); 1980-1993 (WHA integrated, more expansion, move to Commissioner); 1993-2005 (southern expansion, relocation, labour troubles); 2005-present (the post-lockout era, shootouts, new generation of stars). That means that this shift comes halfway through this era, and it will shape the league's history for at least this part of the league's history. If this comes near the end of Bettman's tenure (which could foreseeably conclude by the end of this era of league history), it could be his last chance to go out on top. Whatever happens, it should be, well, interesting.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Assessing the situation

The BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) has been on a "work-to-rule" job action since the school year started, meaning that they are completing no administrative tasks. Each school (and division) has dealt with this in a different way, mostly depending on the severity of union sentiment in said school, but the most recent casualty of this ongoing conflict was report cards. Many schools left teachers to send home informal reports, and a number sent out blank report cards, often only with attendance filled in, to fulfill a legal (I think?) requirement. In spite of complaints from some people that teachers "need" to supply report cards for their students, the BC Supreme Court ruled this week that report cards are not an "essential service" provided by teachers and that they cannot be legislated to deliver report cards. While I am heartened by the news for the precedent that it has established, it was mostly irrelevant for me. I'm teaching at an independent school as a non-BCTF member, so I still had to contrive the accursed documents. By my estimation, I spent around forty hours, mostly outside of regular school hours, working on my first term report cards. That includes time completing the administrative tasks (collecting grades from other teachers, compiling attendance, printing and collating the physical document), as well as editing the template, catch-up grading, and psychologically working myself up to the task. It was more difficult than I had envisioned largely because it was my first time writing them at this school for this age level of students with this level of learning adaptations and modifications. As it turns out, elementary report cards are quite different from high school report cards: there's a lot less brevity and terseness involved, and a lot more sensitivity to individual students and emotional input required. It was, in short, one of the most exhausting tasks I have endured in my short career as a teacher, and one that I am not overly excited about repeating in three months.
Between my own life-sapping experience of the past ten days, the BCTF rhetoric, and the court's ruling, I have been reflecting about the entire idea of report cards. I'm sure Sir Ken Robinson has had something to say about it, and it's likely much more erudite than the rant on which I am about to embark (if you have a link, send it my way, please), but I'll still push on. While I agree with the pedagogical ideals of authentic assessment, both qualitatively and quantitatively, as well as the integral involvement of parents in the educational process, why are we still bound to this one particular form of communication? How have teachers' associations not risen up against this incredibly stressful process and demanded we refine the process in order to preserve the sanity of our educators? How have psychologists not rallied and held demonstrations against these documents that are arguably as damaging as any written correspondences can be? (On second thought, they may choose to encourage this trend; after all, don't they profit off of people being disturbed like this? But I digress.) How has this seemingly archaic process not caught up with the possibilities afforded by advances in communication technology, even in the past decade? Why am I asking so many rhetorical questions?
I took one class in assessment in university - ironically timed after my internship - but even that was a bust. My prof was a sessional teaching the class for the first time, and although she tried really hard, any work she had tried to accomplish was undone when she chose to give our term group project (an annotated exam for which we created a unit as well as the exam) a grade of 99%, rather than the 100% it deserved, because - in her own words - she "just couldn't give out a 100%" (she justified it through pointing out one small typographical error; I'm still likely a little bitter about that one). The point of sharing this fact is that not once in the entire forty hours of the course do I remember being taught about writing report cards: no tips, hints, strategies, considerations, things to avoid, nothing. (She may have mentioned them obliquely, but not in any way that was meaningful or memorable, even at the time). They are nearly ubiqutious in their delivery at schools, yet so much of the process of writing them (not to mention interpreting them) is left to intuition, rather than exposition. They rely on teachers understanding a construct to which they have been subject in the past and combining their experience with their concrete numbers, informal observations and an abstract scale of progress, all in a style that includes educational terminology and reflects their own voice, which they have to learn to develop without direct instruction or coaching. (Like many high school English teachers teach writing, unfortunately). So I come back to my question: why do we still rely on this seemingly overly stressful yet somewhat unreliable and intuitively learned process?
I remember observing the flaws in the system even as a student. When I was in elementary school, the Saskatoon Public School division used a system in which numbers 1 through 4 were assigned. "4" meant "not meeting expectations"; "3" meant "meeting expectations"; "2" meant "exceeding expectations"; and "1" meant "exceptionally exceeding expectations". At the time, I observed what I perceived to be the logical fallacy of the system: without extreme improvement each term, it would be impossible to exceed a "3" after the first term, since the expectations that I had established would have to be exceeded in order to not be deemed as simply "meeting" them. I reflected later that the grades were not likely meant to reflect individual expectations, but rather a codified understanding of what a student at that level should be able to do. Either way, it still seemed arbitrary and meaningless to me, as exemplified in a story from my Grade 8 year. I was an extraordinary speller, easily the best in the school - staff probably included. I'm not exaggerating, either; I had almost singlehandedly led our school to victory on "The Great Spelling Bee" two years earlier, and I was often consulted more readily than the dictionary by my classmates. My teacher often asked me how to spell words in front of the class; I was all too eager, of course, to oblige an opportunity to use my talent, especially in a way that would demonstrate it publicly (I may not have been humble about it, exactly).
When I received my Term 1 report card that year, I was not surprised by most of what I saw: a column of "2"s. I was in a class for gifted students, and even though my efforts far exceeded grade expectations, a "1" was a rare commodity. Perhaps this was meant to continue to encourage us to continue to improve; perhaps the teacher just could not bear to give out "1"s readily. At any rate, I was happy with my "2"s, regardless of the fact that I knew that for the most part I had earned "1"s by this awkward scale, until I saw the aberration. It must have been a mistake, for there should have been no way I could earn a "2" in spelling. I realized that, even had it been measured against the admittedly high expectations I had set, that I deserved a "1". So I took it to her to state my case, reminding her that not only had I not spelled any words incorrectly all term, but that she used me as a resource. It seemed that she was about to justify her grade, but my dogged determination had convinced her to change it to a "1"; now, upon reflection, I think she was picking her battles, and she knew I had the capacity, tenacity, and perspicacity to make her life unbearable for the next seven months, and it was far easier for her to give in then and change one little number. Regardless of her reasons for changing my grade, I had accomplished my victory: my spelling grade was now accurate, and I had proven that the system could be manipulated. I felt like it was at that point that I realized the futility and fallacy of the entire enterprise of report cards. (I'm not even going to get into the debate about assigning alpha-numeric grades to students on a relatively arbitrary scale, other than to continue to state my relief that at least they're on the metric system; that rant is for a different post.)
And yet, here I am, a teacher - of Grade 8 students, nonetheless - forced to engage in that very same enterprise, despite my self-assured observations and equivocations. Perhaps the answer is tautological: Why do we use report cards? Because we use them. They're flawed and awkward and stressful and time-consuming and laborious and arbitrary and ambiguous and manipulated, but they're meaningful. A kind word can bring encouragement to a student and change their trajectory for the rest of their lives; a harsh word can cause a student to spiral into a descent of depression. They reflect not only the student, but the teacher. I had to invest myself in each of my reports, just like I have to invest myself in my students. I could probably go back and read all of my report cards and get insight not only on who I was, but who they were. Maybe that's why we should keep on with report cards: so that, one day, we can look back on ourselves and see who we were and who were our influences. Maybe there is some merit in the process, after all: despite all of my difficulties, I've actually learned not only more about my students, but about myself as a teacher. It's not a system that's anywhere near perfect, but it still does some good, even if that's only to see in which grade we finally earned that "1" or figured out that darn shoe-tying gig.


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