Sunday, November 16, 2014

Midterm selections

The recent release of Interstellar and my subsequent inability to see it over a week into its release - as well as the fact that I recently caught up on all of my grading and finished my end-of-term report cards - has prompted me to reflect on a number of other things I have missed in pop culture over the past few months, what with all the craziness of summer camp, moving, and starting a new teaching job. I started off my lamenting the things I had missed, but then, as I started to think about it more, I realized that there were many more things that I had to be thankful for enjoying over the past few months - including being employed again. I was pleasantly surprised to note that the list of things I have missed is significantly shorter and less substantial than the list of things I have been enjoying, so I thought it would be useful for my sake (and yours) to write them down to give a clearer picture of the current state of life. So here's my account of what I have missed and what I have enjoyed over the past few months, as well as a few things I am looking forward to over the next couple of months.

What I have missed:

Gotham (TV) - This was the only new TV show other than Selfie that actually interested me enough to consider having missed it, but it's representative of the entire new TV season. I'm a few weeks behind on Survivor, but that's about it. Of course, it's never a bad idea to wait and see which series thrive and which are cancelled by Christmas, so I'll catch up on Gotham if it ends up being worth it (which it seems like it might).

Doctor Who Series 8 (TV) - My wife and I watched hard to catch up on Series 7 in time to watch the new doctor on Series 8 as it came on, and then the whole new season came and went without us watching an episode. We'll probably blitz it over Christmas holidays.

Gone Girl (movie) - Other than the aforementioned Interstellar, this was the only movie that I really wanted to see that I missed. It has been a pretty lackluster few months, as September and October often are. That will change soon, although I'm still tempted to read the book before I watch the movie. Hmmm...

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS - Although I recently acquired a 3DS, I decided to wait on Super Smash Bros. I (correctly) figured that I would not really have time to play it, and I think I am better off waiting for the Wii U version anyway. (More on that later...)

Pretty much every hobby I have - Aside from a few small instances, I have mostly had to put a hold on most of my hobbies. I've been to a thrift store once; I have played very few board games; I have not made any bead sprites. I hope this does not sound too complain-y, but it has been my reality lately - though I have been enjoying playing more video games than usual thanks to feeling mostly drained by the end of my schoolwork.

What I have been enjoying:

U2's Songs of Innocence - The lads dropped their new album suddenly in September, and it's most of what I have been listening to since. It's a little rough around the edges at times, but it mostly stands up with their material in the last 15 years. I have been watching, reading, and listening to lots of U2 in the wake of the album's release (more than usual, anyway), and it has been great to get back in touch with them.

Hyrule Warriors - The Dynasty Warriors-meets-Zelda mash-up has been pretty much the only game I have played since its release in late September. It's a lot of fun as a two-player game, too. The best part: I'm just barely starting to feel like I could get tired of it soon. I like it when games earn their keep.

Survivor - The newest edition of Blood vs. Water has been relatively interesting so far (pun intended), but it's about to get a lot better now that they're in the last half of the season.

The Riders - Well, maybe enjoying is not the right word, since their season took a turn for the terrible a week after I arrived back in the province and ended ignominously (though predictably) at the hands of Edmonton (actually at their hands - five interceptions!), but I have been appreciating and watching more games since I returned. Plus, I got to go to a game for the first time in over six years (vs. Edmonton on Oct. 19), so there's that. And next season.

Counting calories - The day after that Rider game, I started using the app MyFitnessPal to track my caloric intake, and it has been eye-opening over the past four weeks as to what kind of calories I'm taking in each day. I'm much better during the week, and Halloween was a bit of a mess, but at least I'm tracking, even if I'm not exercising yet. One step at a time.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver - When you have a spare four hours, just start watching the YouTube channel for this show. Oliver is brilliant, and this is some of the best journalism happening right now. I just wish I could use some of his rants in class, but alas, it is on HBO (even if they bleep the cussing, I still can't use them).

Amazon/Ebay - Though I have not done much in-person thrifting, I have made a few purchases online to cross things off my wishlists. Also, having a job makes it easier to spend money; not to mention getting a new phone with apps for easy access. Besides, it's a lot of fun to get packages delivered to my new address! I'm just glad this has not been a slipperier slope than it has been.

Teaching - As much as it may seem like I am mired in a constant lament about returning to teaching, I am loving being back in the classroom. I have a heavy semester, which has been part of the problem, but I do genuinely love what I do, even when it consumes my life 10-12 hours per day.

Saskatchewan - I have really been enjoying being back here - even shoveling snow! It has been great to reconnect with old friends, to be revisiting old haunts and establishing new ones, and of course to be close to family, especially my 15-month-old nephew. I miss the Island, but it's good to be here.

What I'm looking forward to:

Catching up on TV - Aside from the aforementioned Gotham and Doctor Who there are a few other shows I would like to catch up on, namely Louie (Season 4); Fargo (Season 1); and Broadchurch. I don't know when they will happen, but they will be watched. It might be a busy Christmas break, especially because I will also have The Newsroom (Season 3) to watch. I still have to finish Season 2, but I'm still a sucker for Sorkin in all of his Sorkin-ness. Count me in for the final season. And the upcoming final sixth season of Justified starting in January.

Super Smash Bros for Wii U (Nov. 21) - I did not pick up the 3DS version, but I will buy the Wii U version this weekend when it releases. Mega Man, Little Mac, Pac-Man...this is going to be fun!

Movies - We're moving into one of my favourite seasons of the cinematic year. Not only do I have to catch up on Boyhood, Gone Girl, and Interstellar (among others), but there are a number of new films being released that have caught my attention. I'll see Mockingjay Part 1 mainly because I will have to as a high school English teacher, but it's not high on my list. The top two on my radar from two o fmy favourite directors are Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher and P.T. Anderson's Inherent Vice. Others that are in my view mainly because of the awards buzz are Birdman, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Selma, and Unbroken. That'll keep me busy for a while.

Board Games - There are a number of games being released over the next month or two that are very high on my to play list, even to the point that I would buy most of these without playing them. They include: the new Babel expansion for my all-time most-played game 7 Wonders; Roll for the Galaxy, the new dice-based implementation of Race for the Galaxy; King of New York, the new "sequel" to King of Tokyo; Temporum, Donald X. Vaccharino's (Dominion, Kingdom Builder) time-travel game; and AquaSphere, Stefan Feld's new sci-fi game. I am also looking forward to receiving my Kickstarted edition of Scoville, a game involving harvesting hot peppers, as well as expansions for Among the Stars, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, and The Resistance. Not to mention all of the other games I have bought over the past few months that I have had limited opportunity to play...

Christmas vacation - It starts in 5 weeks, and I will have earned it.

Monday, September 29, 2014

In the Year of the Gamer: 3rd Quarter Board Games Update

It's that time again: time to review my board gaming for the past three months. But first, my new pride and joy: my games on their new Kallax shelf in their new home. It makes me happy every time I look at it. (The second picture is the shelves on the bottom left pulled out.)

Games Played

After a decently busy July and August (21 and 22 plays respectively), September dropped off the map with my lowest month of plays since November 2011 and my only month in single digits since then other than September 2013. I hope it's not the beginning of a trend. I still managed to play 7 new games; I do, however, now own several games that I haven't yet played, so I need to start working through the backlog.

Most played in the past three months: Pot O' Gold - my unpublished prototype! (7); Star Realms (5); Anomia and Eminent Domain (4); Kingdom Builder: Big Box (3)

Most played in 2014 so far: Flash Point: Fire Rescue (8); Hanabi (8); Lords of Waterdeep (8); Eminent Domain (7); Pot O' Gold (7); 7 Wonders (6); Star Realms (6)

New games played this quarter: Attika; Gravwell; Istanbul; Notre Dame; RARRR!!; Splendor; Trains

Additions to my "repertoire" this quarter: Gravwell; Kingdom Builder: Big Box, Notre Dame; Splendor; Star Realms

Games to Play and upcoming games

As you might imagine, my list of games to play has ballooned a bit again with not playing as many new games, but I think that it will sort itself out over the next few months. I've decided not to add new games to my "Top 20 to Play" until the new year, but I'm hoping to get the list down to ten from the original list and to try at least ten new games this quarter. That means I'll need to make some good new gaming friends soon!

Games left to play on my 2014 "Top 20 to Play" list: Belfort; Caverna; Core Worlds; Coup; Firefly: The Game; Forbidden Desert; For Sale; Fresco; Hawaii; Jump Gate; Keyflower; Morels; Tigris & Euphrates (still at 13)

Still unplayed additions to "Top 20 to Play" list from first two quarters: Bruges; Glen More; Impulse; Suburbia

Ten new games I'm excited to try soon: 7 Wonders: Babel (the new expansion to my most-played all-time); Aquasphere (Stefan Feld goes sci-fi!); Fields of Arle (new from Uwe Rosenberg); Impulse (new from designer of Glory to Rome and Innovation); La Isla (another new Feld); Pandemic: Contagion (play as the disease!); Paperback (deckbuilding with words); Quilt Show (looks interesting); Roll for the Galaxy (Race for the Galaxy with dice); and Temporum (Donald X.'s new game about Time Travel!)

Changes to my collection

I had a lot of changes to my collection in the third quarter thanks to the big move to the prairies. I got rid of a number of games - mostly of the party variety - but also including Power Grid and Dominion (I just didn't play them enough to keep them, and they're common enough that I'll still get to play them when I want to). I received a large number of games from Kickstarter (3 big boxes, 3 microgames, and 1 other game, to be exact) in addition to some solid pick-ups in the new city and a couple of parting gifts. I haven't thrifted much lately, but I still haven't even played most of what I've picked up in the past two months.

New games acquired: Alhambra: Big Box (KS); Burgoo (KS); The Castles of Burgundy; Coin Age (KS); Firefly: Out to the Black; Fresco: Big Box (KS); Glass Road; In the Year of the Dragon; Kingdom Builder: Big Box (KS); Notre Dame (with expansion); Province (KS); RARRR! (KS); This Town Ain't Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us (KS)

Expansions acquired: Carcassonne: Hills & Sheep; King of Tokyo Promos; Le Havre: Le Grand Hameau; Star Realms: Promo Set Two

Games liquidated: Curses!; Dominion + Hinterlands; HotSeat; Loaded Questions (+ expansion); Monopoly City; Power Grid; Scattergories; Sequence; Telestrations

Kickstarters backed: Fidelitas; Flash Point: Fire Rescue - Honor & Duty; Harbour; The Resistance: Hidden Agenda and Hostile Intent

Still waiting for Kickstarters to arrive: Among the Stars Promos Two; Scoville; Space Junk

Updates to my board game goals for 2014

1. 300 plays total: It's just not going to happen with this past September, with my total sitting at 157 for the year. It's already more than all of 2013, but I'm going to revise my goal to 233 total plays. Why 233? It's one more than I had in 2012, and it's 25 plays per month +1 extra play sometime. I think I can do it.

2. Nickel and dime my collection: I'm at only 11 out of 99 with at least five plays this year. Time to pick up the pace.

3. Clear out 10 games from my collection: I did that in the third quarter alone, again. I think I've cleared out 40 for the year, so this is still accomplished.

4. Add a dozen quality games to my collection: I was already at 8, and I count 7 solid additions for the third quarter, with three or four more KS orders coming in before the end of the year. Check.

5. Add 15 games to my repertoire: I still needed 9, and I added 5 more. 4 to go for the year, which I will get if I just play the games I own (a novel concept, I know).

6. Play all the games on my Top 20 to Play list: I started with 13 left this quarter and ended with 13. I'm hoping to make it to 10 for the year.

7. Blog more about board games: I thought of posts to write, but they didn't happen. Sigh.

8. Design a game: This is the biggie that I actually accomplished! It's still in prototype playtesting, but it works, and I'm hoping to work more on it in the next few months.

Well, that's it for my board game self-evaluation until year's end. I'm hoping for a great final three months of gaming, so just come on over and we'll pull something off the shelf if you're in the Regina area.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Turner goes to the movies

Everything about Guardians of the Galaxy was amazing: the graphics, the nostalgia, the soundtrack, the character development, the sheer fun of experiencing an event like it. And, much like its penchant for 70s soft rock and 80s pop culture references, it left me reflecting on some of my nostalgic experiences: namely, going to the movies. Movie theaters have been a part of my life since I was nine (Disney's Aladdin), and the entire experience of going to the movies - rushing to make a showtime, sneaking in candy, making snide comments at brutal trailers, waiting through interminable credits for that last scene - is irrevocably a part of my pop culture DNA. Whether I see movies for their technical marvels or their Marvel-inspired geekness, for a long wait for a new film from a favourite director or a sequel that I am unreasonably excited about, or to be part of the cultural zeitgeist or the Oscar prognostication process, I am still stuck on going to the theater.

The first real movie experience that was authentically mine was watching Jurassic Park at the drive-in. We saw it twice that summer, and it was my favourite movie for years. My family had traditions around going to the movies: we went to the drive-in at least once each summer, and we always went to see a movie together on Christmas Eve after we were all done our shopping for stocking stuffers. I started going to movies on my own (ie. without my parents) at 14, and it became one of my default activities with friends; after all, at the time it was possible to see a movie on the day it was released for $3 at a late-afternoon matinee after school.

Going to the movies has changed a lot over the past two decades, but it's still a vital part of my life - maybe too much, since I'm already at eight trips this year alone (12 Years A Slave, Monuments Men, The Lego Movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Grand Budapest Hotel, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Fault In Our Stars, and Guardians of the Galaxy - a surprisingly solid line-up with several instant favourites) with a few more yet to come - chiefly The Expendables 3 (it's for a friend - mostly) and Interstellar, though there may be a couple others that emerge. At any rate, I thought that this might be a good time to reminisce, reflect, and reconsider some of my favourite movie-going experiences over the past two-plus decades of well over 200 trips to the theater; the best way to do that, of course, is in punchy lists, so here goes. And remember: these lists do not necessarily reflect the best movies, rather the best movies to have seen in theaters.

(Note: I have listed the years of release, not the years in which I saw the movies.)

Most amazing visual experiences: Avatar (2009); Gravity (2013); Inception (2010); Life of Pi (2012); The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Movies I saw twice in main theaters: Inception (2010); The Dark Knight (2008); The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001); The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003); Star Trek (2009); X-Men (2000)

Movies for which I had to buy the soundtracks as soon as possible after watching: Crazy Heart (2009); Godzilla (1998); The Great Gatsby (2013); Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); Juno (2007)

Funniest movies I saw in theaters: Bridesmaids (2011); Hot Fuzz (2007); Pitch Perfect (2012); Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010); The World's End (2013); Zombieland (2009)

Best "Discoveries" (movies for which I had little to no anticipation or frame of reference): Con Air (1997); The Matrix (1999); Pitch Perfect (2012); Serenity (2005)

Best "adventures": The Avengers (2012); Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); The Incredibles (2004); The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001); Star Trek (2009)

Favourite random movie-going happenstances and occurrences:
Enemy of the State (1998): Leaving the theater to see a baby-blue El Camino parked outside.
Nacho Libre (2006): Someone in a packed theatre let out a fart perfectly timed when Nacho clenches his cheeks to sing; I didn't know it wasn't part of the movie until I watched it later at home.Rocky Balboa (2006): Watching Rocky fighting Mason "The Line" Dixon and having to catch myself from standing and cheering.
Starship Troopers (1997): The awkwardness of those two scenes knowing that my parents were in the same theater; it was rated R, I was 14 years old at the time, and we didn't have the convenience of the internet to warn us otherwise ahead of time.
Up in the Air (2009): Experiencing Young MC's cameo beside someone who knows all the words to "Bust A Move".

Worst movies seen in theaters: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012); The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; Prometheus (2012); Spider-Man 3 (2007); Super Mario Bros. (1993)

And, just to make this post truly as authoritative as possible, here are my top picks for the best movies in theaters for each year dating back to 1993, with runners-up listed when appropriate and pithy comments attached to help justify my weaker choices.

2014: Guardians of the Galaxy (Runners-up: The Lego Movie and X-Men: Days of Future Past)
2013: Pacific Rim (Runner-up: Star Trek Into Darkness)
2012: The Avengers
2011: Bridesmaids
2010: Inception
2009: Star Trek
2008: The Dark Knight (Runner-up: Wall-E)
2007: Hot Fuzz
2006: Rocky Balboa (It was a very weak year overall.)
2005: Serenity (Runner-up: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
2004: The Incredibles
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002: N/A [I was in the midst of my not-going-to-theaters phase, so the only new movie I saw all year was The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and I refuse to count it as the best on principle, even though it technically was.]
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2000: X-Men (It feels dated now, but it was in a class of its own at the time.)
1999: The Matrix
1998: Armageddon (by default, but it was admittedly awesome viewing at 15 years old.)
1997: Tie: Con Air and Face/Off (the summer of Nicolas Cage)
1996: Star Trek: First Contact (I cannot overstate how amazing this was in theaters, especially for a 13-year-old Trekkie. "The line must be drawn he-ah!") (Runner-up: Dragonheart)
1995: N/A (I saw movies that year, but just look at this list and tell me a) which movies I would have seen at 12 years old and b) which of those were any good. Batman Forever? Nope.)
1994: Star Trek: Generations (TNG on the big screen!)
1993: Jurassic Park

And so my discussion (mostly) begins and ends with Jurassic Park, the movie that started it all for me when I was ten years old. It was probably the best such movie to launch such a storied career of movie-going, and I can only imagine that the entire movie-going experience will only continue to get better and better as time goes on; either that, or it will just become completely irrelevant as soon as I have kids, and I will just have to enjoy the one movie I see each year on the big screen whether it's good or not. But for now, I can keep enjoying the theater and adding to my list of great movie-going experiences - maybe as soon as this November with Interstellar.

What are your favourite movie-going experiences? Do you agree with my choices, or do you have other favourites? Let me know in the comments!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the final results

Here it is: the summary of a week's worth of listening to, thinking about, ruminating on, and studying the influences, ramifications, and manifestations of Weird Al's 35-year career, a process that has likely taken as much as 10-12 hours in total. It's arguably a lot of time to spend thinking on any one piece of pop culture, but what I've learned in the past week is that I have barely scratched the surface of investigating Al's work. I've ranked the albums and included the rankings and my thoughts here, in addition to some of the other thoughts I've had along the way. On to the final rankings!

Click here for Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1980s
Click here for Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1990s
Click here for Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 2000s (and on)

The final rankings and reflections therein

Let's start off with the final rankings, from worst to first, over the decades.

14. Polka Party! (1986) – 5.5/20
13. “Weird Al” Yankovic (1982) – 5.9/20
12. “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D (1984) – 13/20
11. UHF – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff (1989) – 14/20
10. Even Worse (1988) – 15.3/20
9. Straight Outta Lynwood (2006) – 15.5/20
8. Poodle Hat (2003) – 16/20
7. Off the Deep End (1992) – 16/20
6. Dare to be Stupid (1985) – 17.5/20
5. Mandatory Fun (2014) – 18/20
4. Bad Hair Day (1996) – 18.5/20
3. Alapalooza (1993) – 19/20
2. Alpocalypse (2011) – 19.5/20
1. Running With Scissors (1999) – 20/20

And, for reference, the comparisons between each decade period:
The 1980s: (68/114 = 59.6%)
The 1990s: (73.5/80 = 92%)
The 2000s/2010s: (69/80 = 86%)

So, that answers my initial question of where Mandatory Fun falls in, which corroborates my initial theory of a top 5 standing (at least according to my admittedly somewhat personally skewed ratings). And the final rankings were not all that surprising at all; although I didn't pre-rank the albums before going through this exercise, I imagine my list would have been relatively similar. But still, there were a few surprises along the way and a few things I learned through the process.

Ten things I've learned about Weird Al

1. Weird Al is surprisingly consistent. Over the past 26 years, he has released no albums that ranked less than 70% in my scale, and his last eight albums have been even better. His worst five albums were all in his first decade, but even those were mostly really good (and even those issues might have been solved in not releasing Polka Party!). Just try and think of other artists who are as consistent for as long - there are not many.

2. Weird Al is not finished by any means. Every so often, there's someone who rolls his metaphorical eyes and makes some kind of overture that Weird Al is outdated. (Here's the latest from Steven Hyden from Grantland as an example.) He's not; in fact, he's as relevant as ever, as evidenced by his contention this week for his first #1 album, and he is still finding new topics to explore and ways to parody (aside from the admittedly somewhat "been-done-before" parody "Inactive" - but I can forgive him for that).

3. Al is arguably one of the most accomplished musicians of the last four decades. Consider, for a moment, the number of genres in which Al is fluent: rock, pop, R&B, alternative, hip-hop, rap, country, and, of course, polka. He has come a long way from having to slow down the BPM of "U Can't Touch This" to where he is at now, which is a surprisingly well-regarded rapper by the rap community. He's impressive when his range and scope are considered, both within each album and over the course of his career.

4. Al is occasionally unfortunately juvenile, puerile, scatological, and unnecessarily gory. I noticed it most on Poodle Hat, but there are a surprising number of songs that are actually not really suitable for kids. I know that seems like an obvious point, but I was surprised at the frequency at times. I don't know why he does this, when he also juxtaposes those unfortunate references with...

5. Al is one of the most accomplished satirists in and of pop culture. Some of what Al does is merely parody - making fun of something for the sake of it - but there are times at which Al is a sharp satirical voice. The most prominent example for me is in the juxtaposition between Al's identity and hip-hop, which he has purposefully cultivated since 1990, with "White & Nerdy" as the apex, but there are many other examples: Al's connection with Michael Jackson in the 1980s, the way in which he satirizes music videos, his AlTV (or AlMusic, for us Canadians) specials. There are also several examples of how he satirizes artists through using their music by turning the subject of the song on itself or its performer ("Six Words Long", "Smells Like Nirvana", "Achy Breaky Song", "Perform This Way"). In addition, he has also found ways to satirize most of the significant (and insignificant) movements and developments of the past thirty-five years.

6. The visual aspect of Al's career is almost as important as the musical aspect. No discussion of Al's work ever seems complete without reference to the visual aspects of his career, and there are few artists that can make a similar claim. Many artists can achieve success without a strongly directed visual identity, but few have it as crucial to who they are as Al does. In fact, I would argue that the short list for the top 6 in some order of confluence of visual and musical identities is Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, U2, Britney Spears, and Weird Al.

7. Weird Al is surprisingly creative. Considering that Al has released fourteen albums and around 170 songs, I expected to see more repetition between subjects. But despite his volume and the length of his career, there are few topics that Al has returned to between his parodies and his originals. Sure, he has had songs with similar themes - for example, TV ("I Can't Watch This" and "Couch Potato") and nerd culture ("It's All About the Pentiums" and "White & Nerdy") - but he has never seemed to repeat himself or do the same thing twice, which is no small feat.

8. Al is the consummate pop artist. I know some people call Michael Jackson "The King of Pop", but I think it's really Weird Al. His rise came at the perfect time for someone like him, just as music was diversifying, hip-hop was becoming mainstream, and pop music was emerging as one of the dominant forces in contemporary American pop culture. Al is the Andy Warhol of musical pop artistry, and I believe that his work and presence will stand as emblematic of many of the changes in the US (and arguably the world) from 1980 onward. Of course, I'm not convinced that Al will have lasting significance beyond the pop artistry of what he does, but I do think that there are more depths to be plumbed in the study of Weird Al beyond him being that weird parody guy - which brings me to the fact that...

9. There has been surprisingly little academic dialogue about Weird Al's career. Many of the articles I looked up focused on the pop aspects of each album and asking inane questions about "how do you come up with new ideas?" I found relatively few articles that attempted to go indepth at any length into Al's career and the ramifications thereof, aside from a few on the rise of musical parody in the early 1990s. I'm really interested in investigating this aspect more, and who knows, maybe even pursuing it someday. After all, someone other than Al himself needs to become an expert in Weird Al, right?

10. Al is better in moderation. After inundating myself with Al's work and listening to most of this albums this week, I remembered that he is better a little bit at a time. I'm not even sure that I really even enjoy listening to a whole album at a time - and certainly not almost exclusively for a week - but I have found that he is better when moderated and when the playlist is edited. I do enjoy, however, going on a blitz of videos on YouTube every so often, and I have enjoyed my journey into Al's psyche this week.

The future of Al

One of the questions that has come up in my research this week has been about the future of Weird Al's career. He is now finished his record career, and many of the questions he has been asked have focused on that development as well as how distribution has changed even in the past fifteen years. One commenter pointed out that Al has sold the same number of albums in the first week of release as he did in 2006 - around 70,000 - but that he was #10 then and is contending for #1 now. So, with some of those things in mind, what is the future of Weird Al?

As is evident from this past week, Al is as relevant - if not more so - than he ever has been. He partnered with eight different sites to deliver his new videos, and he continues to produce music and videos that appeal to and make an impact on pop culture. I think that Al will continue to parody songs, but that he will release those parodies as they are written and produced, so we will have material from Al more often. I think he will still release albums, but they will be more collections of the songs that have already been released with perhaps one or two new songs. I really don't think that there is any indication that Al is finished or done, and I think he will continue at his craft for sometime to come. And I'm glad for that, since it's clear that he still has more to offer us as fans.

Final reflections

So there you go - the results of a week of thinking about Weird Al, sifting through the ephemera and minutiae of one of the truly weirdest enduring pop culture phenomena of contemporary North American culture. It has been an entertaining thought experiment for me, as I was not certain of either the process or prospects of such an investigation when I started, but I am pleased with the results. And who knows - this might not be my last time spending time thinking about Al; I might end up being that scholar who writes a Ph.D thesis on Al's work someday. But for now, I think I'll have to settle for finding a way to see Al in concert, and I think that this tour might be the time to cross that experience off my bucket list. 

Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 2000s (and on)

Al's albums in the last fifteen years have all been really good - almost as good as his 90s albums asa set; the only issue is that there are not enough of them. Of course, the changes in the way that music is produced and distributed have affected Al in this period significantly. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the four albums released between 2003 and 2014.

Click here for Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1980s
Click here for Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1990s

The Aughts: an awfully quiet decade for Al (2000-2009)

Poodle Hat (2003): I didn't really listen much to Poodle Hat when it was released. Maybe it was because I was on the tail end of my "no secular music" kick, or just because I was much more removed from the pop music scene in general, but this one didn't catch me. In years since, it has gained a bit more with me, and I was surprised at how well it came out in the rankings.

Parodies: "Couch Potato", "Trash Day", "A Complicated Song", "Ode to a Superhero", "eBay". Not a bad selection of the times here, with Eminem, Nelly, and Avril Lavigne represented. "eBay" might be the best, but it seems like it would have fit better on his previous album, Running With Scissors. "Superhero" was a lot like "The Saga Begins", so it just kind of seemed like he was on repeat. Still, the parodies themselves are all solid, so 5/5.
Originals: "Wanna B Ur Lovr" is entertaining and "Hardware Store has its moments, but "Bob" is the best one on the album. 3/3
Polka: "Angry White Boy Polka", the second "thematic" polka (after "The Alternative Polka" on Bad Hair Day in 1996). Entertaining, timely, and amusing. 3/3
Visual: There was no official video for this album, thanks to Eminem's refusal to let Al film one for "Couch Potato". 0/3
Standout Track(s): "eBay", "Couch Potato", and maybe "Bob". 2.5/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: Seems like it hit all the right notes: Eminem and 8 Mile (and an Oscar-winning song), early 2000s TV, Spider-Man, Backstreet Boys, eBay, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel...but it still seemed to be a little out of step. 2.5/3
Total: 16/20

Straight Outta Lynwood (2006): Any discussion of this album essentially begins and ends with "White & Nerdy", Al's biggest hit and arguably his best video (which is saying something). I think the album is a little lacking otherwise, but that is somewhat due to factors outside of his control (kind of). I feel like this really is the first album that he missed out on some of the major musical acts, and three of the parodies seemed a little weak, especially when the possible songs for parodies are considered, as"SexyBack", "Hollaback Girl", "S.O.S.", "Bad Day", and Nickelback's "Photograph" were all possibilities. But we can't really evaluate it on what wasn't there, so let's consider what was included.

Parodies: "White & Nerdy", "Do I Creep You Out", "Canadian Idiot", "Confessions Part III", "Trapped in the Drive-Thru". "Nerdy" is among his best, "Canadian Idiot" is sublime (and perfect for Grade 11 Social Studies, especially paired with Five Iron Frenzy's "O Canada"), but the other three are less-than-exemplary. "You're Pitiful" kind of counts, so let's go for 3.5/5
Originals: "Don't Download This Song" felt a couple of years too late, but it's still great, along with a couple of other entertaining entries. 2/3
Polka: "Polkarama!", which features a lot of fun songs but adds up to less than his best. 2/3
Visual: After the goose egg on Poodle Hat, Al created 9 (!) videos for Lynwood, including the video for "Nerdy". 3/3
Standout Track(s): "White & Nerdy", "Don't Download", and "You're Pitiful" do give the edge here. 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: The references in "White & Nerdy" alone put this over the top. "Don't Download" is a great tribute to 80s charity ballads, and "Canadian Idiot" is especially satisfying for us Canucks. Still, most of the rest of the album doesn't resonate here, so 2/3.
Total: 15.5/20 

The 2010s (2010-present)

Alpocalypse (2011): The longest wait for an Al album since the gap between Running With Scissors and Poodle Hat (1999 to 2003) produced what was in and of itself a decent album with strong parodies and great originals. But just like Straight Outta Lynwood, it seems like this album is missing something, but it's not part of the album itself; I think the answer is actually that he didn't release an album in 2009. One parody and four originals were available in 2009 on an EP entitled Internet Leaks, all of which appeared here, and over half of the parodies were of songs that were at least two years old ("You Belong With Me", "Whatever You Like", "Party in the USA"). So what that means is that three of five parodies and four of six originals could have theoretically been available two years earlier, which seems like it would have been enough for that extra album. But, as before, we cannot evaluate the album based on what was not there, so let's look at what was included.

Parodies: "Perform This Way", "TMZ", "Party in the CIA", "Another Tattoo", "Whatever You Like". Aside from the aforementioned slightly dated nature of some of the songs, the parodies themselves are all high quality, though "Whatever You Like" is a little weak. 4.5/5
Originals: This might be Al's best bunch of "style parodies", with distinctive entries parodying The Doors, The White Stripes, Weezer, Queen, and Hanson. 3/3
Polka: "Polka Face" - the title says it all. 3/3
Visual: From the cover to the 10 videos (!) that were released with the album, this one has the visual element covered. 3/3
Standout Track(s): "Perform This Way", "Party in the CIA", "Craigslist", "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me" 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: TMZ, Lady Gaga, Craigslist, ring tones, spam emails, CIA operations - it hits all the right spots. 3/3
Total: 19.5/20 (which really surprised me!)

Mandatory Fun (2014): Al's final album (it completes his 32-year record deal!) keeps his streak of great albums intact and has reminded everyone that he is not anywhere near finished. The Weird Al brand is still going strong, and this album is as good as his last 8. Pretty impressive for a 22-year span.

Parodies: "Handy", "Foil", "Word Crimes", "Inactive", and "Tacky". This collection is up there for the best collection of parodies yet, and they are all instant classics. 5/5
Originals: Only "Sports Song" really stands out, although "First World Problems" has its moments. 1.5/3
Polka: "NOW That's What I Call Polka!" is an almost perfect time capsule for the previous three years, except that it's missing the Harlem Shake. 3/3
Visual: 8 videos in 8 days and a great Communist propaganda theme make for a great visual presence. 3/3
Standout Track(s): "Word Crimes", "Handy", "Tacky", "Foil". 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: This is arguably one of Al's least "timely" albums in that most of the references are more timeless. The savvy comes in the songs he's parodying, all of which were among the most popular tracks of the previous year. 2.5/3
Total: 18/20

Overall thoughts on Al in the 2000-2010s

I was actually quite surprised by the results of this decade, as I had expected lower ratings. Maybe I just had not paid as much attention to Al, or maybe I was subconsciously evaluating him on what he did not do rather than what he did do, but it had seemed like Al was out of touch until I really paid attention to the details. Four albums, none under 75%, an overall score of 86%, and surprising cultural relevance. Al's not done yet, by any stretch of (even his weird) imagination, and this period was almost as good as his four 90s albums.\

Total: 69/80 (86%)

Next up: Summarizing and ev-"al"-uating the results

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1990s

The 1990s were Al's best decade, definitively and absolutely - and I'm not just saying that because I was a teenage boy at the time. He released only four albums, in addition to a couple of other singles, but they all rank among his best, and many of his best songs and videos came from this decade. The only shortcoming: no Collective Soul parody. (Seriously, there wasn't one to be found?) Anyway, here are my thoughts on Al's 1990s efforts.

The comeback (1992-1993)

Al had not had the best time in the late 80s. Two of his last three albums were commercial and critical disappointments, his movie UHF failed at the box office, and it seemed like he might have been done. Then came a little parody of a band called Nirvana and...

Off the Deep End (1992): Al went full Nirvana with this one with the cover, video, and meta-analysis of Nirvana's brief but influential career. He timed it perfectly, and created one of the best synergies he's had between himself and the artist being parodied. The rest of the album holds up, too, despite the fact that much of it had been recorded over a year earlier.

Parodies: "Smells Like Nirvana", "I Can't Watch This", "The White Stuff", "Taco Grande", "The Plumbing Song" - three all-timers, one good, and one "meh" (Taco). 4/5
Originals: "You Don't Love Me Anymore" is great, but the rest are just okay. 1/3
Polka: "Polka Your Eyes Out" includes pieces of "Love Shack", "The Humpty Dance", "Enter Sandman", and "Ice Ice Baby". One of his best for sure. 3/3
Visual: From the cover to the video, Al's tribute to Nirvana dominates. It's just too bad that he didn't come up with another visual trick. 2/3
Standout Track(s): "Nirvana", "Watch", "White Stuff", and "Polka" are still funny 20+ years later. 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: Nirvana, NKOTB, Milli Vanilli, Hammer, Oreos, bad TV, Vanilla Ice,'s all here. 3/3
Total: 16/20

Alapalooza (1993): Despite the quick turnaround from the previous album (his quickest since 1985-86), Al made the quintessential Al-bum here. Almost every song is classic, and I can still listen to the whole album twenty years later.

Parodies: "Jurassic Park", "Bedrock Anthem", "Achy Breaky Song" (meta again!), and "Livin' In The Fridge" - only four, but they are so incredibly good. 5/5
Originals: Some surprisingly good entries here, too: "Frank's 2000" TV", "Talk Soup", "Young, Dumb, & Ugly", and "Harvey the Wonder Hamster". 3/3
Polka: Let's just leave this here. 3/3

Visual: "Jurassic Park is a great video, the album cover is probably Al's best, and even though it's not official, that "Bohemian Polka" video is amazing. 2/3
Standout Track(s): Where to start here? 8 of the 12 tracks could all be on a Best-of compilation. 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: One of the biggest movies ever, The Flintstones, Al's first real country song, Wayne's World, and Queen. 3/3
Total: 19/20

And to finish up his incredible two years, Al recorded a version of the Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm mmm mmm mmm" entitled "Headline News" that immortalized three stories of 1993-1994 (Lorena Bobbitt, Tonya Harding, and the kid getting caned in Singapore). Wow.

The late 90s (1996-1999)

Bad Hair Day (1996): Al's best-selling album deserves the title. It's easily his most accessible, and it's one of his best, as well as one of my personal favourites. But in researching, I found out that there were several unused parodies, any of which would have put this album over the top and sealed the deal as Al's best: "Laundry Day" (The Offspring's "Come Out and Play"); "Gee, I'm A Nerd" (The Beatles' "Free As A Bird" - c'mon, Yoko, have a sense of humour); "I'll Repair for You" (The Rembrandts' "I'll Be There For You", vetoed by the producers of Friends); and "Green Eggs and Ham" (U2's "Numb", vetoed by the Dr. Seuss estate). I'll just leave this here for now, so you can see what might have been.

Parodies: "Amish Paradise", "Cavity Search", "Gump", "Syndicated Inc.", "Phony Calls" - only "Syndicated Inc." doesn't really hold up, but the other four are still classics. 4.5/5
Originals: The best collection of originals on any Al-bum, headlined by "The Night Santa Went Crazy" and "Since You've Been Gone". Also, bonus points for the b-side "Spy Hard" from the movie of the same name. 3/3
Polka: "The Alternative Polka" was Al's first thematic polka, and it's still delightful. Again, here's the clip from AlMusic. 3/3

Visual: The video for "Amish Paradise" is so iconic that it makes up for the rest, especially that last backwards scene. Well, almost. 2/3
Standout Track(s): "Amish Paradise", "Cavity Search", "Phony Calls", "The Night Santa Went Crazy"'s a solid collection. 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: Forrest Gump, TV (again), The Simpsons, Santa, U2, Batman, and the Amish. 3/3
Total: 18.5/20

Running With Scissors (1999): 

Parodies: "The Saga Begins", "It's All About the Pentiums", "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi", "Jerry Springer", and "Grapefruit Diet" - maybe the best collection of parodies yet. 5/5
Originals: "The Weird Al Show Theme", "Your Horoscope for Today", and the 11-minute epic "Albuquerque", which has since been visually immortalized here with scenes from Breaking Bad (spoiler alert!). 3/3

Polka: "Polka Power" might be my favourite of all of Al's polkas, but that's probably because it's all songs that I listened to in high school. Still, any polka that includes "Tubthumping" has to be good. 3/3
Visual: The videos for "The Saga Begins" and "It's All About the Pentiums" allowed Al's new look (sans glasses) to feature prominently, and they're among his best. 3/3
Standout Track(s): "Rabbi", "Saga", "Albuquerque", and "Pentiums". 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: Star Wars, Jerry Springer, 90s pop, Jewish culture, late 90s computer lingo, and the theme from his TV show. 3/3
Total: 20/20

Overall thoughts on Al in the 90s

The 90s were Al's best decade, hands down - the perfect combination of pop cultural awareness, commercial acceptance, and great parodic songwriting. One perfect album, two that barely missed by one more solid parody and/or video, and another fairly solid album. I do think that the widespread acceptance and embracing of music video and eventually the emergence of the internet really did help Al's career, and helped produce what is his best album. It also showed that Al is at his best when he juxtaposes opposing cultures - say, white nerdiness and hip-hop - and that he actually shines as a hip-hop artist. It's just too bad that the next phase of his career wasn't nearly as solid. 

Total: 73.5/80 or 92%. 

Coming up next: Al in the 2000s and on.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1980s

Weird Al's new album, Mandatory Fun, releases on Tuesday, July 15th, and from what I've heard already, it's a gooder. It has made me think about Al's 32-year career and how he has been a part of my life for over twenty years. I think there's something about his music that appeals to the ten-year-old in me and just makes me giggle, whether it's a clever wordplay, funny juxtaposition of pop cultural reference, or a scatological sound effect. I have been giggling as I have heard excerpts of the new album, and I think it has the potential to be one of his best.

But then I realized that I had to actually find a way to spend an unreasonable amount of time testing that theory, so here it is: a somewhat objective semi-scientific ranking of Weird Al's fourteen studio albums. Starting with this first album, I went through his discography and ranked each album on several criteria, trying to determine which albums actually do come out on top. I decided to break this discussion into several posts, and the easiest division was in the decades: the 1980s, the 1990s, and since 2000. But first, here's the criteria I used to evaluate each album.

The criteria

Parodies: The heart and soul of any Al album is the parodies. They should be snappy, witty, memorable, and ... To some extent, the success of the parody is dependent on how iconic the original song is, but you know it's a really good parody when you can't hear it without also hearing the Al version. /5

Originals: Al usually includes 5 or 6 originals on each album, but they're definitely not the main draw. His originals are often "style parodies" of different artists, so they're still parodic, but they also need to stand on their own. But really, the question is usually how long you wait before you skip to the next "real" parody. /3

Polka: For most of his career, Al has mashed a number of songs into a polka. How memorable are the songs, and how entertaining is the polka? /3

Visual: I doubt that we would still be listening to Al after 32 years if not for video, so the visual element is a big part of each album. That includes videos, album covers, and general iconography. /3

Standout Track(s): This is kind of an arbitrary category, but it's meant to accent the "parodies" category with the extra intangible marks that should go along with the best of the best. /3

Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: Does Al capture the zeitgeist in the whole album, or is it a miss in terms of addressing the pop culture landscape? Are the references timeless, or have they faded over the years? /3

Add them all up to make for a total out of 20. Let's move on to the commentary on Al's 80s albums and see where we end up.

The first three albums (1982-1985)

"Weird Al" Yankovic (1982): Weird Al's debut album doesn't really stand out except as an indication of what would be to come. It has a couple of great songs, but it's mostly forgettable. Here's the breakdown.

Parodies: "Ricky", "I Love Rocky Road", "Stop Draggin' My Car Around", "My Bologna", "Another One Rides The Bus". Let's call it 3/5.
Originals: Nothing of note here. 0/3
Polka: Not present. N/A
Visual: Kind of pre-video, so not really present here. 0/3
Standout Track(s): "Another One Rides The Bus" is a classic. 1/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: "Ricky" is a reference to "I Love Lucy", but the rest seems pretty bland. 1/3
Total: 5/17 = 5.88/20

"Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D (1984): Al's first "good" album, and the one that proved he was more than a one-trick pony. Its great moments are great.

Parodies: "Eat It", "The Brady Bunch", "I Lost on Jeopardy", "King of Suede", "Theme from Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)". Three classics, one mediocre-to-good, and one forgettable. 3.5/5
Originals: Nothing of note here save for "That Boy Could Dance." 1/3
Polka: "Polkas on 45", a collection of classic rock tracks; decent, but not great. 2/3
Visual: "Eat It" is a shot-by-shot remake of "Beat It", and "I Lost on Jeopardy" is amusing. 1.5/3
Standout Track(s): "Eat It", "I Lost On Jeopardy". 2/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: "Eat It" parodies the biggest hit from the biggest album of all time, "I Lost on Jeopardy" is much more famous than the original, and "The Rye or the Kaiser" is great. 3/3
Total: 13/20

Dare to be Stupid (1985): Al's best album of the 80s and one of his best, period. I know "Yoda" was from earlier in his career, but it counts here for the album release.

Parodies: "Like a Surgeon", "I Want a New Duck", "Yoda", "Girls Just Want To Have Lunch". Even though there are only 4, they're so good that this deserves a perfect score. 5/5
Originals: The originals are almost as memorable as the parodies: "Dare to be Stupid", "One More Minute", "This Is The Life". 3/3
Polka: "Hooked on Polkas", a mix of mid-80s pop and rock. It ends with Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax", so it gets points for that. 2.5/3
Visual: "Like a Surgeon" is classic, but not much for the rest. 1/3
Standout Track(s): "Like a Surgeon", "Yoda", "Girls...", "Dare to be Stupid" 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: Star Wars, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and even a later inclusion in the 1986 Transformers movie. 3/3
Total: 17.5/20

The next three albums (1986-1989)

Polka Party! (1986): Al's worst critically and commercially received album kind of deserves its reputation. It's just not very good, aside from one song, and it's his worst of the 80s.

Parodies: "Living with a Hernia", "Addicted to Spuds", "Here's Johnny", "Toothless People". Only two of those have had any staying power. 2/5
Originals: Non-memorable save for "Christmas at Ground Zero". 0.5/3
Polka: "Polka Party!", with the most memorable moment from "Rock Me Amadeus". 1/3
Visual: "Hernia" is one of the all-time best Al videos, but this was a mostly non-visual album. 1/3
Standout Track(s): "Living with a Hernia" gets some more points here. 1/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: "Hernia" connects vaguely to Rocky IV (the source of "Living in America"), but it's not really connected otherwise. 0/3
Total: 5.5/20

Even Worse (1988): From one of the worst to one of the best, including the first example of Al going "meta" with "Six Words Long". Reports were that Prince and George Michael turned Al down, so who knows what else might have been with this album.

Parodies: "Fat", "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long", "I Think I'm A Clone Now", "Lasagna", "Alimony". Five Greatest Hits, and arguably the strongest collection of parodies on any Al album. 5/5.
Originals: "Good Old Days" is kind of fun, but that's about it. 1/3
Polka: None?! N/A
Visual: "Fat" is one of the best Al videos, and it won a Grammy. That's worth 2/3 at least.
Standout Track(s): All of the parodes qualify, but "Fat", "Six Words", and "Clone" are classics. 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: This album is more timeless than others, as its pop culture targets are less timely. It's memorable for the songs themselves, not for the content. 2/3
Total: 13/17 = 15.29/20

UHF - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff (1989): This is one of the forgotten albums of Al's career, but it shouldn't be. I'll admit it: UHF is one of my guilty pleasure movies. It's so stupid and ridiculous that it's hilarious, and the non-sequitur bits are amazing ("Gandhi II" and "Spatula City" in particular). Plus, pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards! Still, the album holds its own.

Parodies: "Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies", "Isle Thing", "She Drives Like Crazy", "Spam". Two classics, one mediocre, and one "huh?" track. Let's go for 3.5/5 here.
Originals: There are only 4 here, but the theme song for "UHF" makes up for the others. 2/3
Polka: "The Hot Rocks Polka", featuring only songs by The Rolling Stones. One of his best. 3/3
Visual: Being associated with a movie helps, but the video for "Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies" perfectly parodies the proto-CG featured in the original Dire Straits video. 2/3
Standout Track(s): "Spam", "Money.../Hillbillies". 2/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: It stands up, but it's not overly memorable beyond the movie. 1.5/3
Total: 14/20 (Which surprised me, too!)

Overall thoughts on Al in the 80s

We wouldn't have Al if not for his success in the 80s, and some of his best moments came in his first decade. There are at least a dozen very solid classic Al parodies and a few originals, along with some great polka mixes. But when you start to really comb through each album, it becomes a little more apparent that it's easy to just remember the best parts and not the less-than-exemplary ones.
Of the six albums, two were bad, three good, and one great - still a pretty solid record all things considered. Still, there's not much reason to own any of these albums, since most of the best songs were included on his first Greatest Hits album in 1988 (and the few that weren't - "Yoda", for example - were on Vol. II in 1994). But I will always have that special place in my heart and DVD player for UHF and the ad for "Gandhi II", as well as the video for "Living with a Hernia".

Overall total for the decade: 68/114 = 59.6%

Coming soon: The 1990s (Off the Deep End, Alapalooza, Bad Hair Day, and Running with Scissors)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

King of Tabletop: 2nd Quarter Board Games Update

Well, it's time again to write that post that only me and about five of my board gaming friends actually care about: my summary of board gaming of the past three months. As always, I'll include little blurbs and a few lists in the different areas (games played, games to play, changes to my collection, and updates on my 2014 goals), so here goes.

Games played

After my expansion in the first quarter, I thought I might be a bit more repetitive in this quarter. I was to some extent, as I did play a greater number of games a greater number of times, but I was also surprised that I played 11 new games this quarter, and all but one of them only once each. Here are the games I played from April to June 2014.

Most played in the past three months: At the Gates of Loyang, King of Tokyo, Lords of Waterdeep, Ra (4 each); Galaxy Trucker: Anniversary Edition, Hanabi (3 each)

Most played in 2014 so far: Lords of Waterdeep (8); Flash Point: Fire Rescue (7); Hanabi (6); Fleet (5); King of Tokyo (5)

Update for most all time plays: 7 Wonders (40); Pandemic (27); Race for the Galaxy (22); Dominion (18); Agricola (16).

New games played this quarter: Anomia, Bora Bora, In the Year of the Dragon, Macao, Ora et Labora, Ra, Roma, Star Realms, Telestrations, Terra Mystica, Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar (11)

Additions to my repertoire this quarter: Ra, Lords of Waterdeep: Scoundrels of Skullport

Games to play and upcoming games

Well, with all of those new games played, I was only able to knock three of my list; I was, however, able to knock a couple off before they could even be put on the list. I have 13 left from the original list, and I have a few replacements to bring the full list to 20 (of the 121 listed as "Want to Play" on BGG). Here are some thoughts on those games.

Games left to play on my 2014 list: Belfort; Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Core Worlds; Coup; Firefly: The Game; Forbidden Desert; For Sale; Fresco; Hawaii; Jump Gate; Keyflower; Morels; Tigris & Euphrates (13)

New games added to Top 20 to Play in first quarter: Gravwell; Suburbia

New games on my Top 20 to Play list in second quarter: Bruges; Glen More (a return!); Impulse; Istanbul; Splendor; Star Realms (played!)

Kickstarters from this quarter that I want to try when they come out: Eggs and Empires; Gone Viking; Hollywood; New Dawn; Waggle Dance; Yardmaster

Five games of high interest slated for upcoming release: 7 Wonders: Babel; AquaSphere; King of New York; Pandemic: Contagion; Pandemic: The Cure.

Changes to my collection

After a huge shift in the first quarter, things quieted down a lot this quarter. I only picked up a few new games with that trade from March, but they are good ones. I'm still refining my collection, of course, so there's still more to go, but it's on its way.

New games acquired: Galaxy Trucker: Anniversary Edition; Jaipur; King of Tokyo: Power Up!; Lords of Waterdeep with Scoundrels of Skullport Expansion; Star Realms

Games liquidated: Barons; Last Will; Settlers of Catan

New mini-expansions I acquired: Among the Stars: Wiss; Among the Stars: Reprint promos (from Kickstarter); Star Realms: Promo Set One

Kickstarter update: The only new Kickstarter project I backed this quarter was the stretch goals for the Among the Stars reprint. I did miss out on Eggs and Empires and Yardmaster, though I might order them both later if they turn out to be good. In the meantime, I am eagerly anticipating the imminent arrival of a number of microgames in the next few weeks: Burgoo; Coin Age; Province; This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Two of Us. I'm also still waiting on a number of games I ordered between four and six months ago: RARRR!; Fresco Big Box; Alhambra Big Box; Kingdom Builder Big Box; Space Junk; and Scoville. The first three should be arriving in the next few weeks; the next two in the late summer; and Scoville will arrive sometime in November. I am currently a backer for Harbour, a new mini-Euro worker placement game from TMG, and it seems to be worth it even just for the stretch goals. (I am still very tempted by the Twilight Struggle: Digital Edition KS project, even if just to have the PC version and the physical copy of the limited "What If?" expansion; then again, how often will I get a three-hour-long highly strategic card game based on the Cold War to the table or even to the screen, even if it is the #1 game on BGG?)

Updates to my board game goals for 2014

1. 300 plays total: I was 21 under for the first quarter at 54, and I managed 56 this quarter - only 19 under my goal of 75. That was mostly due to a lackluster June (only 13 plays), but whatever the reason, it leaves me 40 plays behind of my goal halfway through the year. I would need to average just over 30 plays a month for the rest of the year to make it to my goal; I'm not sure that I'll be able to do it (that does mean a play a day on average), but I'm sure going to try.

2. Nickel and dime my collection: I had only played 17 of my 91 games, period, in the first quarter. After two quarters, I have managed to at least nickel (five or more plays) five games in my collection, with another three only one play away. It's still a small percentage, but I think the secret is that I am just eliminating games that I don't play, which allows me to play the games I do play more often (addition by subtraction). I'm making progress, but the best progress will be to just continue to eliminate games from my collection.

3. Clear out 10 games from my collection: I had already cleared out 30 in the first quarter, so I had easily made my goal already. I liquidated three more this quarter, and I'm going to clear out quite a few more in the next month or so through sales and trades, so I will have a much tighter collection by September.

4. Add a dozen quality games to my collection: I'm currently at 8 quality additions for the year with four incoming Kickstarters (plus the microgames). (I have a couple other additions so far, too, but their relative quality is still in question.) Considering that I am planning to make a few more sales and trades that will lead to more quality purchases, I am well on my way to my goal.

5. Add 15 to my repertoire: After adding five in the first quarter, I only added one - Ra - in this quarter, so I still have nine more to go. I played a number of games once, so it might be time to start replaying them to really add them to my line-up. Those KS games coming in should help, though.

6. Play all the games on my top 20 to play list: Four in the first quarter, three more this quarter - only 13 to go, and I should be able to get at least eight of those fairly easily.

7. Blog more about board games: I wrote two posts specifically about board games ("The art of complex games" and "The problem of ameritrash" and also heavily mentioned board games in two other posts. Still a little behind my revised goal of one per month, but I'm on track for improvement over the year.

8. Design a game: I have the rules for my game all drafted; I just need to finish the prototype and start testing it. I've just been so busy in June (physically, mentally, and emotionally) that it hasn't managed to make it through to the actual happening phase. This is my biggest goal for the next three months: to actually create and play my game (which I think is actually pretty good, by the way). Who knows - maybe I can Kickstart it by the end of the year!

So, there you have it. If you're one of those five aforementioned friends who cares about this stuff, I look forward to your feedback; if you're part of the rest of the world, I look forward to trying to get you hooked on board games sometime soon.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The art and science of thrift

I have been an avid thrift shopper for most of my life, but it really took my attention when I moved out on my own fourteen years ago; I remember having my parents help me drive my stuff two hours away to move into my first place, unloading my meagre belongings into my bachelor suite, eating supper, and then going to Value Village with them before they drove back home.  I owe much of the inventory of my current collections to my success at thrifting (both to my personal benefit and to the detriment of my wallet and storage space). I have closely logged my thrift purchases with photos for almost two years on Facebook, and I get a lot of comments and questions whenever I post them. The five I get most often are:

1. How often do you go thrift shopping?
2.  How do you have such great finds?
3.  How much money do you spend?
4. Where do you keep all of your stuff?
5. In what kind of palatial mansion do you live that can hold all of this stuff? (I recognize that it's a variation of question 4, but I get it enough to justify including it twice.)

In the process of thinking about these questions, I have realized that I am well on my way to becoming a Master Thrifter, using the definition of mastery as 10,000 hours devoted to a practice as shared by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. I doubt that I’m there yet – that mark would have required 2 hours of thrifting every day over the past fourteen years – but I would assume that I’m somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the way there (maybe more if you factor in my childhood thrifting). At any rate, I figure that my relative mastery (compared to much of the rest of the population) has earned me not only the right but also given me the responsibility to share some of my thrifting lessons with the masses so that you can have some of the same successes and avoid some of the pitfalls I have encountered over my many years of thrifting.

The physics of thrift

As I considered the basics of thrifting, I realized that there were a few factors that are always present in my process of thrifting. In my search to qualify them, I started to think in the terms of physics: states of matter, the laws of thermodynamics, the properties of light, kinetics, and so on. I came up with some slightly amusing punny titles – my favourite was “the five laws of thriftodynamics” – but the core idea was that there are invariably five factors that factor into any discussion of thrifting, whether it be in the form of purchasing, keeping, selling, giving, or evaluating. These five factors are all crucial in my process as a thrifter and a collector, so here are the physical properties of thrift (so to speak).

1.       Value. This might be as an addition to my collection, as a gift to someone, or even as a candidate for potential resale (more on that later), but there has to be some value to the item being thrifted or remaining in my collection. I do not purchase or keep things based on the possibility of value (“this could be worth something some day”), but on the reality of it.

2.       Usefulness. I refuse to own things just for the sake of owning them or having collections just to collect. If I will not play/watch/read/otherwise use the item, it needs to go. I do recognize that for some items that sentimental use could be considered valid, but you can always take a picture by which to remember it. Use is one of the most important factors for me.

3.       Scarcity. The relative scarcity of an item is significant to whether I will purchase or keep it. I will much more readily keep a board game that is out of print than one that I know I can get at any time.  Some collections are much more fluid in this nature than others, of course: my DVD collection is increasingly fluid thanks to Netflix, but my most fluid collection is my books, as there are very few books that are not easy to find online (seriously, Amazon has everything) or at the library.

4.       Price. At the same time, price matters. A scarce item at a high price still is not likely to be worth it, as price always factors in. It’s hard to judge the point at which the scarcity/price tips from one to the other – that is, when the scarcity of an item allows me to justify an increased price – but suffice to say that I cannot think of a time when I paid greater than full market value (FMV) for an item knowingly. Most of the time, price wins out over scarcity for me, and I have used a number of more scarce or sought-after items to fund new purchases.

5.       Space. I have to have space for whatever I bring in, and the rule that my wife and I have is that I only have the space that we have. That means that if something new comes in, something has to go out, and what you often do not see is how much I trade out of my collections compared to how much I bring in.

The philosophy of thrifting

Beyond the “physical” elements of thrifting and collecting come the metaphysical – the philosophical, if you will – the questions not about how, but why. What is the meaning of thrift? Why do we thrift? These are the questions that make us wonder about the thrifting condition, the questions that keep us up at night. Well, probably not; after all, the answers to those questions are fairly obvious (or they ought to be, at any rate). Here, then, are the equivalent of five meditations on various facets and aspects of thrifting and how they may be applied in different circumstances; I thrift, therefore I am.

1.       The art of collecting. Part of the reason I really enjoy thrifting is that I really enjoy collecting (more on that in a future post), and the two hobbies dovetail together really well. I get to enjoy building my collections cheaply (though not particularly efficiently), and I get to find new things to collect every so often. I find much more fun in perusing through thrift and secondhand stores in the hope of that great find than I do in just clicking the “buy now!” button online (though I have found more enjoyment in finding great deals in the bowels of Amazon and eBay of late). I think that, at heart, most thrifters are collectors in some manner or another, and so I think that thrifting and collecting are almost inextricably linked.

2.       Thrifting for a second space. One of the reasons I do thrift is because I benefit from it in my second space: the classroom(s) in which I teach. A decent portion of what I purchase and own is a direct result of my career as a teacher, and I would estimate that as much as 20% of the items I thrift are for my use in the classroom. I have, however, tried to minimize this tendency, as I have a way of collecting more items than I need, sometimes for subjects that I may never teach again or by buying resources I will never actually use. With that said, I think it is valuable to have a second space for which to thrift, whether it’s a classroom, office, or man cave; it’s great to have a place for all those things you would like to enjoy but not put in your primary space at home.

3.       Thrifting gifts. One of the things I love is being able to purchase gifts for others at thrift stores. I occasionally miss the mark, but I usually manage to give really good gifts as a result of my thrifting and collecting. When I am buying something as a gift, it either has to be for a specific person and/or purpose (ie. someone’s upcoming birthday), or it has to be something that I don’t mind keeping “in stock” for when I might need a gift to give. There are a number of books or CDs that I buy regularly when I find them for cheap for this express purpose. This allows me to give gifts that are often nicer than what I can spend, and it means that I am almost never without a gift when one is needed. I also am not averse to pillaging my collections for items that would make good gifts, and I regularly give items (especially books) directly out of my collections as gifts.

4.       Reselling items. Between gifting and reselling (or trading), I would estimate that as much as a fifth of items I pick up at thrift stores are not even intended to become a part of my collections.  My guideline with buying items to resell or to use for trade is that I have to be able to make a decent profit on the item with minimal effort. Most of the items that fall into this category are video games or board games that I find on the cheap and sell or trade either online or to some of my favourite vendors in exchange for other items. I’m not in it to make money or to be one of those guys who buys everything to sell on eBay, but I do enjoy passing good finds on to others at a price closer to market value (though still a good deal).

5.       Thrifting as a hobby. I also believe that it is important to enjoy thrifting as a hobby, rather than as a means to an end. And like any hobby, it is more likely that you will spend more money on it than you will gain back; that said, it is possible to get some return on thrifting, or for it to at least become self-sustaining, which is usually my goal. (Of course, thrifting is one of the only hobbies I can think of that actually can be somewhat sustainable that way – poker is the only other one that comes immediately to mind.) But don’t do it for the money. There are some people for whom thrifting/eBay provides a livelihood, and although I do applaud their entrepreneurial spirit, I find it unfortunate that they are taking away from the enjoyment that the rest of us. (Then again, if the free market dictates that people can actually make a living from capitalizing on the charity and lack of effort of those donating/selling at reduced cost, then who am I to disagree?) I know that there are ethical discussions to be had about buying things that were donated or sold cheaply without the understanding of the value of the items and reselling them, but my philosophy is that I seek to enjoy the entire thrifting process.

The Practice of Thrifting

It’s one thing, of course, to ruminate about the physics and philosophies of a subject; it’s another entirely to calculate, formulate, and activate those seemingly abstract concepts into something real, practical, and tangible. This is where the metaphorical rubber meets the road, where the concepts become formulas, where the theory is applied to the real world, and where the physics and philosophies become realities. Here are my top fifteen tips to help you thrift more efficiently, effortlessly, and effectively.

1.       Keep track of your collections.  I use various sites to log my collections – BGG, VG Collect, Goodreads – as well as documents and spreadsheets and my innate ability to remember what I have, so much so that I can only think of one time when I purchased something mistakenly when I already had it. But if you are going to get into thrifting (and collecting), take the time to know what you have and what are on your wishlists.

2.       Know what you’re looking for and what it’s worth. I mostly specialize in thrifting in my aforementioned areas of collection, so I do take some time to know what I should be looking for or at least how to determine worth quickly and easily. Smart phones have completely revolutionized thrifting for me in the past few years , and I use Amazon, eBay, Video Game Price Charting, Board Game Geek, Google and other sites all the time to determine whether something is worth buying for a future sale or trade even if I don’t necessarily want it myself; just make sure you grab the item off the shelf before punching it in.

3.       Get to know your local thrift stores well. This might include layout of the store, ways in which they shelve new merchandise, timing of new stock being put out, even when some of the friendlier employees might be working. If you get to know your stores well, it will save you time and hassle and allow you to go to more stores. In most of my regular stops, I can be in and out in 10 minutes with a quick circuit of the shelves. Visit your stops regularly and become known – you would be surprised at how the staff knowing you will make a difference.

4.       Look everywhere. I have had many instances in which I found an item that was out of place or otherwise misshelved. This happens often in thrift stores, as people often just put items back randomly when they decide they don’t want them; in some cases, however, there may be employees who are trying to save something for themselves by keeping it out of place (rare, but it happens). The most common areas that media items like video games, for example, are hidden in are in the VHS tapes and in the electronics/homeware/hardware sections, so if you have the chance, take a quick peek just to make sure.

5.       Don’t judge a thrift store by its appearance. Some of my best finds have come in the most disorganized, dingiest, grimiest places, or in stores that don’t even look like thrift stores. Maybe it’s a corner grocery with a random secondhand section or a furniture store that happens to have a small section of video games, but snoop around. My wife laughed at me when we were in Taipei when I found several thrift stores in our time there; she had lived in that neighbourhood for three years and not found any, and I found several within two weeks. I just knew what to look for and did not allow external appearances to deter me.

6.       Be honourable. There is an unwritten understanding among thrifters – a code of honour, if you will. It includes some basic courtesies – allowing others to look at the media shelves while you are, putting things back where you found them, not taking things out of other people’s carts – as well as a general expectation of community among thrifters. I’ve seen people be aggressive jerks in thrift stores (especially on a half-off day at Value Village, and it’s just not good for anyone. Don’t be a jerk about thrifting, and don’t make the experience unpleasant for others. Don’t push and shove and grab; if someone else gets that item just before you do, be happy for them (although asking them once if they are really going to take something is okay – just once). Even if it twists the knife in your thrifty heart, celebrate their good luck (even though it came at your expense) and enjoy their find with them. Honour the other thrifters, and you will find that not only will the entire experience be more enjoyable, but you will be far more likely to reap good karma from  your thrifting in the future.

7.       It never hurts to ask. The interpersonal aspect of thrifting is sometimes de-emphasized, but as I said earlier, it is always good to be familiar with the staff and to be friendly. It is also good to ask questions of those staff. “When do you usually put out new stock?” “Is this the only location in which I might find video games?” “Do you have anything more in the back?” This practice also works really well at garage sales, as you never know what someone might pull out that they didn’t think would sell as soon as they have a prospective buyer.

8.       Know your limit and thrift within it. One of the biggest mistakes I have made over the years is to not track my spending as carefully and to spend too much time (and therefore money) visiting thrift stores. I have had more success when I have set limits for myself so that I spend less money. Those limits almost always involve not going to stores, since I often anticipate finding something of value. Of course, I have also had to learn the dangers of independent Amazon sellers and eBay and how easy it can be to purchase an item cheaply. Set your budget and stick to it, because you will break it if you keep going – trust me.

9.       Don’t be a completionist. I write to you as a confessed completionist, knowing how difficult it can be to be missing that one item of a set – that obscure independent debut album with only 2000 copies printed or that mini-expansion that was only released in Germany. If you manage to stumble upon it for the right price, whether in person or online, go ahead, but don’t seek completion for completion’s sake. It’s a slippery slope to go down once you start down that path, and trust me, you don’t want to go too far down that road.

10.   Be ruthless. When you take up thrifting and collecting as a hobby itself, you have to become more ruthless; if you are not ruthless, you can easily become someone who hoards. If you have doubts about the value or usefulness of an item, whether in purchasing or keeping it, listen to yourself. Overcome loss aversion and get rid of those things, even if it might mean a slight loss on its value. It’s worth it for your sanity to add by subtracting, and you can only do it by being relentless and ruthless with yourself.

11.   Leave deals for your fellow thrifters. Don’t be “that guy” - you know, that guy who uses a barcode scanner to pick up items that he can sell on eBay for the best profit margin. There are many times that I have left items that I know are a good deal just because I want someone else to have that same experience I get. With that said, there are some deals that are just too good to leave behind, so don’t walk away if you know you’ll kick yourself; be courteous, but not ridiculous. It’s part of that unwritten honor code among true thrifters.

12.   Don’t thrift impulsively. I recognize that all thrifting is in some way impulsive, as the nature of the rotating stock in thrift stores mandates that you never know what you’re going to find, but there have been enough times when I just bought something and walked out wondering why I just did that to make me wary of impulsive buys. If you have the time at a store to walk around, just collect the item when you see it and think about it. It’s amazing what perspective you can gain with even ten or fifteen minutes of considering a purchase – especially if you find something better as you’re considering.

13.   Always be willing to walk away. It is much more likely that you will regret a purchase made than a purchase not made; in all of my years of thrifting, I only have one purchase (maybe two) I regret not making. Most of the time it is better to walk away when you have doubts, because it will allow you to actually pick up the items that are the jaw-dropping snatch-off-the-shelf must-have buys you get every so often. Just remember: if you do walk away, it might be gone, so it can be a delicate balance.

14.   Enjoy the hunt. I know I have written before about “the thrill of the hunt” and the sheer enjoyment of that moment that you make that find, but I still feel the need to emphasize the need to enjoy thrifting and collecting for what they are: a hobby that feeds other hobbies. It’s one thing to go on eBay or Amazon and to “buy it now”, but it’s another to find that item in the wild. With that said, I have increasingly resorted to those online sources, as I have resigned myself to being unable to find many of the items I seek in my local travels, but I still have not given up hope entirely. I look high and low all over the stores I frequent, and I enjoy the experience.

15.   Be persistent, persevere, and don’t be discouraged. Perhaps the best tip I can give is to keep at it even when it’s discouraging. For as many items as I find, I still probably take three or four times as many trips as I post finds, and I might have an amazing find one out of every three or four of those times; if you’re not inclined to do the math yourself, that means that I might have one great find for every ten to fifteen trips I make to a thrift store – and that might be a generous estimate. The reason I have so many good finds is that I keep at it and I don’t let a poor stop (or five) get me down. One of my rules is that I like to have a “find of the day” if I am going out thrifting, and I like to go until I have something worthy of that title. I don’t always get it, but I keep trying – and that’s what really matters.

So, there you have it: the physics, philosophies, and practices of thrifting. I hope this has been helpful for you, as it certainly has been helpful for me to crystallize my thoughts in one place. I’m going to continue refining my thrifting practices, and perhaps I will be able to return to this stream of thought at some point with even more clarity as to the art and science of the true thrift. In the meantime, happy hunting, and may the odds and ends be ever in your favor.


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