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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Link Dump
As usual, just some interesting stuff I've seen on the internets lately:
  • It Happened to Me: A Serial Killer Wrote Me a Letter - Julieanne Smolinski humorously relates the story of how she came to be pen pals with Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker!). As it turns out, "Evil uses floral stationery." (I was going to do a pull quote from her first letter to Ramirez, but I decided that the whole article is too good and you should really read the whole thing.)
  • Jefferson changed 'subjects' to 'citizens' in Declaration of Independence - This is from a while ago, but it's an interesting look at how technology is helping us make new discoveries in history.
  • Tree Fort by an Awesome Person - I want one.
  • Can I Stream It? - A pretty useful service, except for the fact that for most movies the answer is "no". Still, if you ever find youself itching to watch Tango & Cash, this will tell you that yes, it's available on Amazon Prime Instant Viewing. Yay?
  • A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage - A little melodramatic, but an interesting look at the way McDonalds uses the McRib and the scale at which an entity the size of McDonalds operates.
  • Kevin Smith's Army - Sam Adams (not the beer guy) takes the gloves off and badmouths Kevin Smith pretty hard here. To my mind, Smith stopped being amazingly funny when he started smoking pot a lot. I'm not a smoker myself, but I don't normally have a problem with stoner comedians (indeed, I quite enjoy bad stoner comedies from time to time). Now he's just occasionally funny, and he certainly seems to have a lot of issues with people criticizing his work. On the other hand, this article comes off as somewhat childish. And Red State, Smith's latest movie, isn't a comedy. Of course, it's not that insightful either (and other movies have tread the same ground better), but it was an interesting exercise for Smith. While I don't think he's had a tremendous career, he's also only put out one legitimately bad movie (Cop Out), and he's got an excuse there: he didn't write the script. I'm actually somewhat interested in his next (and purportedly final) movie (the one about hockey or something).
  • The Same Picture of Dave Coulier Every Day - The greatest, most innovative niche blog ever.
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on November 30, 2011 at 08:09 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reading Snapshot
It's a meme! About books! Here goes:
  1. The book I’m currently reading: Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville. This has been in the book queue, and indeed sitting on my shelf, for years. Not sure why I never picked it up until now, but I've finally done so. I'm only a couple hundred pages in, but so far, so good. Miéville is a little too verbose in his descriptions of the world, but at least it's an interesting setting worthy of description. It's a little slow to start and the story so far is somewhat undefined, though I think I can see where it's going (and things will hopefully pick up a bit once it gets there). So yeah, mixed feelings so far, but I've got a long ways to go.
  2. The last book I finished: Packing For Mars, by Mary Roach. A nice pop science book that does indeed get into some of the hairy details about space travel... Roach is able to make the whole thing entertaining, though she does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the raunchy aspects of space travel. Lots of talk about farting, peeing/pooping, and sex in zero gravity. On the other hand, those activities are actually much more difficult than it would seem, so those details actually turn out to be rather interesting. I'm glad the book is written well and that Roach is able to make dry subjects interesting, but perhaps a 4 page digression into whether or not Astrochimp Enos masturbated during his flights (he apparently didn't) is a bit too much. Still, it's a fun book and well worth a read.
  3. The next book I want to read: It's a toss up between Lois McMaster Bujold's Memory or Katherine Kerr's Polar City Blues. Both are relatively short SF novels of the space opera variety (at least, I think so), which I'm sure I'll be ready for after the density of Perdido Street Station. I'm probably leaning towards Bujold right now, as that book is a sure thing in my mind...
  4. The last book I bought: Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh. Another space opera series by a female author. I'm hoping it will be able to fill the void once I burn through all of Bujold's Vorkosigan novels.
  5. The last book I was given: Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris. I actually gave this to my uncle for Christmas last year, and he has since returned it to me, as he thinks I'd enjoy it, which I probably will. When I get to it. Which might be a while.
Well, there you have it. What's your reading snapshot?
Posted by Mark on November 27, 2011 at 01:35 PM .: link :.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Silent Return of Friday is List Day
So I just plum forgot to write something on Wednesday. In all fairness, there was a holiday and I had other things going on that day, but really what happened was that the cluck struck 1 am before I remembered that I normally post something on Wednesdays. This might be the first time in 6 or 7 years that this has happened. I must be getting forgetful in my old age. Anyway, I decided to resurrect the Friday is List Day style post to make up for my earlier negligence. This was a quasi-meme started by my friend Roy several years ago. He has since stopped blogging and quite frankly, I never partook in the Friday is List Day thing in a regular fashion anyway. So I wouldn't expect any more of these in the near future, but hey, enjoy it while you can:

Random 10:
Or maybe a not so random (though still semi-random) list of recent musical listening:
  • The Mars Volta - "Cassandra Gemini"
  • Deerhoof - "Secret Mobilization"
  • The Black Keys - "She's Long Gone"
  • Baby Huey & The Babysitters - "Listen to Me"
  • They Might Be Giants - "Minimum Wage"
  • Neutral Milk Hotel - "Holland, 1945"
  • Les Baxter - "Hot Wind"
  • Richard Hawley - "Tonight The Streets Are Ours"
  • Forest Fire - "Born Into"
  • Aloe Blacc - "You Make Me Smile"
5 Ideas for Modern Day Silent Films
Well, perhaps not exactly silent. One of the great strengths of film is that it is a visual medium and a lot of information can be communicated simply by the framing and movement onscreen. The introduction of sound in the 1920s and 30s has lead to an atrophying of visual storytelling, as we usually end up with long strings of dialogue and exposition (and, gasp, voiceover!) that could just as easily be accomplished visually. Sound itself isn't a problem, but I'm coming to find a lot of movies that I hate (and even some that I generally like) are sullied by poor (and unnecessary) dialogue. Simply removing half of the dialogue would be a big improvement. So in the below movies (which will never get made), imagine that it would have lots of sound, just not any real dialogue (or, at least, very minimal dialogue).
  • Alien vs. Predator: Fuck the human element. Who needs humans? Even in the comic (which is awesome and would make a much better movie than any of the craptacular AvP movies), they were a bit unnecessary. Imagine this movie - no dialogue, no subtitles, just aliens, predators, and ass-kickery.
  • Wall-E: This one is already halfway complete. What's more, everyone agrees that the movie goes downhill a little once the humans show up and start talking. I guess you'd still want some basic dialogue type stuff, but it would be minimal at most.
  • The Tree of Life - The film is basically a series of mildly connected visual vignettes. The parts where people talk are mostly unnecessary, and as an added bonus, cutting them out would decrease the bloated running time of the film. There are numerous movies I think this could work for that I've seen recently: Melancholia, Drive, Meek's Cutoff (practically a silent film already, though some of the dialogue in the film is important), and so on. Cutting these films down to 70-90 minutes would be a boon.
  • A Silent Slasher - It's a subgenre of horror that is so well codified that you really don't need dialogue. The audience knows all the beats that need to be hit and the dialogue in these movies is usually horrendous and filled with lame, dated slang. Instead, fill the film with tension-filled stalking sequences and tracking shots.
  • An Underwater Adventure - I was trying to think of a situation in which people would be unable to speak to each other, and I came up with this: old-timey deep-sea divers running around on the bottom of a large body of water, encountering mysteries/monsters/something. Since they're underwater, communication would be accomplished through hand signals and pure visual storytelling on the part of the filmmakers.
5 Beers Everyone Should Try
Actually a tough list to put together, but I'm trying to choose beers that are unique and interesting, yet widely available (while I'd love to recommend obscure, hard-to-find wonders like Devine Rebel or Sierra Nevada ExPortation, that's not really the point - it's unlikely you'll be able to find those, and I know it's frustrating to see folks recommend stuff like that). So here goes:
  • Saison Dupont - Sweet, spicy, light colored and full bodied, an awesome gateway into the world of "good beer" and Belgian beers. If you like this, look to try: Avec Les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont (basically a stronger version of Saison Dupont - in fact, trying any Dupont saison is probably a good idea), Ommegang Hennepin, and Unibroue La Fin Du Monde.
  • Trappistes Rochefort 8 - Dark fruits and lots of spiciness, with a ton of intricate and complex flavors emerging as you drink. A very unique flavor profile here, but still approachable and a wonderful, perfect beer. If you like this, look to try: Rochefort 6 and Rochefort 10 (basically weaker and stronger versions of the same beer, respectively), Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel, and Chimay Blue/Grand Reserve.
  • Ommegang Abbey Ale - This is the beer for all those folks who think they don't like "dark beers." (Come to think of it, so is Rochefort 8). Rich flavors, full body and dark fruitiness (very distinct from Rochefort though), it's a fantastic beer. If you like this, look to try: Affligem Dubbel, St. Bernardus Prior 8, Westmalle Dubbel, and Chimay Red.
  • Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA - IPAs are definitely an acquired taste, but it's worth trying a double IPA like this, as they tend to be more flavorful and less one-dimensionally bitter. This one has great characters of citrus, caramel malts, and a well matched citrus. If you like this, look to try: Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, Victory Hop Wallop, Brewdog Hardcore IPA, Bell's Two Hearted, and Russian River Pliny the Elder.
  • Stone Imperial Russian Stout - Dark, roasty and maybe even a bit chocolatey, this is a well balanced boozy beer. A more traditional "dark beer", but well worth trying. If you like this, look to try: North Coast Old Rasputin, Oskar Blues Ten FIDY, and Victory Storm King Stout. (In addition, if you have extra money and can find a barrel aged version of a Russian Imperial Stout, go for it.)
Ok, so that's a reasonable list, though it does skew towards Belgian beers and high ABV beers. Sue me. They're all relatively easy to find (though some of the additional beers mentioned at the end of each one may be more regional and difficult to find) and there's a reasonable variety too.

Well, that's all for now. Hopefully I won't forget to post on Sunday.
Posted by Mark on November 25, 2011 at 02:13 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #6: Bottling
The Christmas beer was in the fermenter for two weeks, so it was bottling time. Fermentation started quickly, lots of bubbles in the airlock for about 4 days, after which, things trailed off quickly. The biggest question with this brew was the spices and damn, this smelled great. The cloves were probably the most prominent of the spices, but it seemed well matched to the rest of the beer. That being said, I wanted to get some more cinnamon out of this, so I chucked a few cinnamon sticks in the bottling bucket to give it some extra... cinnamonity? And the finished product did indeed seem to display a little more cinnamonitivity. My guess is that the spiciness will fade in time, so this will probably be nice and complex by Christmas.

Final gravity was 1.014, which was a hair lower than expected, but that's a pleasant surprise. If my calculations are correct, this will bring the beer to around 6% ABV, which was my exact target. I gave it a taste, and it seems pretty good. I don't really have a feel for how non-carbonated beer will taste once it's carbonated, but this seems right. Nice spiciness, good body, seems like it will be good stuff. The appearance is a very pretty dark amber color.
My homebrewed Christmas Ale, straight from the fermenter
There's about 6 weeks before Christmas, which should give it enough time to condition in the bottle. My saison was awesome at week one, but that's rare and in this case, I'm assuming the spices need some time to settle down. 6 weeks should do the trick.

Not sure what's next. I'm saving the dubbel for the summer and since it's winter, I'd like to make something that requires lower fermentation temperatures. An IPA (single hopped Simcoe?) or maybe a British ESB of some kind (my nutty idea is to get me some bergamot oil and make an Earl Grey British ale, maybe even using some tea in the initial steeping phase.) Funnily enough, a lot of Christmas beers say that they get better with age, so I might even want to make next year's Christmas beer now, and age it. Or something. I was also thinking that it might be time to get a secondary fermenter, which would allow all sorts of fun stuff like dry hopping and oak aging (and bourbon oak aging!)

(Cross Posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on November 20, 2011 at 08:21 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Weird Movie Synopsis of the Week
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we saw a tale of Elephant vengeance. Against Nazis. This time, courtesy of my friend Dave, we've got a touching story of bovine mutation:
"In this unsettling chiller, a genetic experiment intended to boost bovine fertility goes awry when one of the cows spawns lethal mutant offspring."
Short, but sweet. Does it surprise anyone that this is a film that is available on Netflix streaming? I thought not.

According to Dave, this movie is actually much more well-made than the premise might lead one to believe. I guess we'll just have to see about that, won't we? The movie is called Isolation, and IMDB has rated as a rather hefty (for this kinda movie) 5.9 rating from 2500+ users.
Posted by Mark on November 16, 2011 at 08:21 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Neal Stephenson wasn't particularly successful early in his career. I imagine having trouble for a few years is rather common amongst successful authors, and obviously Stephenson has gone on to establish himself as a big name, especially in the nerdy science fiction community. But, as he snarkily wrote in his author bio on my copy of Snow Crash:
His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984 and vanished without a trace. His second novel, Zodiac: the Eco-thriller, came out in 1988 and quickly developed a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers. It was also enjoyed, though rarely bought, by many radical environmentalists.
While writing Snow Crash, Stephenson started looking into other options. Because who would want to read a book where a hacker/pizza delivery boy/cyber-ninja researches Sumerian mythology and linguistics theory? In an old interview, he comments on his career thusly:
I was writing Snow Crash about the same time my uncle, George Jewsbury, and I started talking about doing collaborations. The rationale behind that was, clearly, I may be able to limp along indefinitely, writing these little books that get bought by 5,000 people, but really it would be smart to try to get some kind of serious career going. We had heard somewhere that Tom Clancy had made like $17 million in a year. So we thought, 'Let's give this a try.' The whole idea was that 'Stephen Bury' would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson. It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I've written them. It just goes to show there's no point in trying to plan your career.
Indeed! I actually rather enjoyed the Stephen Bury books, and they actually presage Reamde in their thriller genre roots. But Stephenson has gone on to write impenetrable books that have become quite popular amongst a certain type of geek (i.e. me). Unfortunately, this presents something of a problem. Long time readers of this blog know that I'm a huge fan of Stephenson, but in reality, I've never actually met a person that really loves his books (the online world is another story). This makes it quite difficult to recommend my favorite novels to other people, because I generally know they're not going to like it (I generally settle on Snow Crash as a recommendation, but there are things about that book that often don't go over well with normal folks). In particular, Cryptonomicon (which is my favorite novel) seems to polarize readers. Shamus describes the phenomenon best:
In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.
Similarly, The Baroque Cycle (basically a 2700 page prequel to Cryptonomicon) is not a series for normal people. The subjects are similar, but weighted differently. Much less programming, and much more history and monetary theory. Anathem probably appeals to folks who love Philosophy and/or Quantum Physics, with some linguistics thrown in for fun. The common factor with all of this is that Stephenson's books aren't particularly accessible to mainstream audiences. Thus it's hard to find a way to introduce people to his work.

Enter Reamde, Stephenson's latest and most accessible novel. Well, accessible for folks who don't mind reading 1000+ page novels. Ironically, this accessibility seems to have garnered the only real complaints about the book. Which isn't to say that people don't like the book. Reviews seem to be overwhelmingly positive, but the one thing that comes up again and again is that it's "just a thriller." It is not a novel that plumbs the depths of technology or philosophy, nor does it wrestle with big questions the way a lot of Stephenson's other works do. For my part, I finished it a few weeks ago and find myself thinking about it often. This isn't to say that I think there's something profound going on beneath the surface, but who knows? Maybe a second reading will unearth something more. But then, I don't really need it to be a profound life-changing book. It's a page-turning thriller written with wit and humor, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Stephenson's fans will certainly not be bored. Despite the fact that many seem to enjoy the inaccessibility of his earlier novels, I do think there are plenty of Stephensonian digressions that will keep fans interested. Take, for instance, "The Apostropocalypse", wherein one of our main characters explains how two writers he hired to provide background material for his video game argued over the semiotics of fantasy naming conventions. The video game itself is rather cleverly designed, and Stephenson spends a lot of time describing its mechanics, allowing him to delve into geography, monetary theory and the practice of gold farming in MMORPGs. Stephenson even addresses how this game came to compete with World of Warcraft by catering to the Chinese market. Later in the novel, there's an interesting digression into how great circle routes work. These are things that Stephenson excels at, and there's certainly a lot to chew on here. He's taken standard genre tropes and overlaid his own style, ultimately elevating this book from much of its competition.

The basics of the plot itself are rather straightforward. Richard Forthrast is one of our primary characters. He was a draft-dodger who figured out a way to cross the Canadian border undetected, parlayed that knowledge into marijuana smuggling, then turned legit serial entrepreneur. His latest venture is a fantasy MMORPG video game called T'Rain, and it's become quite successful. He's hired his niece, Zula Forthrast, to work for his company. As circumstances would have it, Zula ends up getting kidnapped by Russian mobsters who are afflicted with a virus from the game (this virus has locked up the mobsters' monetary livelyhood). Pissed off to no ends, these Russian mobsters want Zula to help find the virus writers (no doubt Chinese kids) so that revenge can be exacted. Along the way, we run into a lively cast of characters, including a group of Jihadis (who eventually become the main villains of the novel), a Hungarian hacker, a Chinese mountain-girl, the Chinese kid who wrote the virus, an MI6 agent, and, of course, a badass Russian security consultant. The terrorists want to kill lots of people, and most of the other folks want to stop them. Typical thriller stuff, I guess, but done with more nuance than you'd normally expect.

As characters go, the Forthrast clan, Iowa natives, will strike most Stephenson fans as being familiar. Not quite Waterhouses (from Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle), but Richard certainly leans in that direction. The Forthrasts also bear a resemblance to the family clan in The Cobweb. Sokolov, the Russian security consultant, is more of a Shaftoe kinda guy. This isn't to say that the novel is completely derivative of Stephenson's earlier novels - there are plenty of wholly new characters, and I generally enjoyed most of them. Depth seems to be reserved more for the Forthrasts, Richard and Zula, while the others are more surface-level affairs, but they're generally a likable bunch. And they're all pretty damn competent too. Indeed, most of the time, they're downright Sherlockian. Take this quick sequence, in which Sokolov deduces what's happening from very little information:
Sokolov retrieved his spare clip and other goods from the wreckage now strewn around the conference table, but paused on his way out of the suite to shine his flashlight over the dead man's face. He was ethnic Chinese.

Why had they taken his clothes?

Because something about them made them useful.

A uniform. The guy was a cop, or a security guard.
Thought processes like these are peppered throughout the book, and our intrepid heros and nefarious villains are all pretty damn good at this form of deduction.

The book does start off a bit on the slower side, and you're not really sure where it's going until about 50 pages in, when things kick into high gear and don't really let up for about 600 or so pages, and even then, there is only a brief respite as various characters are maneuvered to the ultimate showdown. And there are a lot of concurrent storylines being maintained here, much moreso than Stephenson's recent work. He may not have been shooting for profundity when writing this novel, but he sure amped up the complexity, to the point where calling it "just a thriller" doesn't do it much justice. I'm not a particularly accomplished thriller reader, but I from what I have read, this is far more complex and adroit than I would have expected. And it's funny too.
She picked up her phone, navigated to the "Recent Calls" list, and punched in Richard Forthrast's number.

It rang a few times. But then finally his voice came on the line. "British spy chick," he said.

"Is that how you think of me?"

"Can you think of a better description?"

"You didn't like my fake name?"

"Already forgot it. You're in my phone directory as British Spy Chick."
And then there's this bit, from perhaps the funniest chapter in the book:
How could your cover be blown in Canada? Why even bother going dark there? How could you tell?
After which we get to witness a hysterical chain of emails with two spys basically berating one another while getting actual espionage work done. Great stuff.

There were perhaps a couple of times where the MMORPG side of the story seemed a bit incongruous, like maybe Stephenson was writing about it for its own sake rather than advancing the story, but he manages to tie it all together by the end. Stephenson sometimes gets dinged by folks for his digressions and his endings, but this is a tight novel, and the ending is an epic gunfight ranging over a hundred pages (or maybe even more). There's even a chapter of wrapping things up. Another minor complaint is that Stephenson seemed to go to extreme lengths to get his characters romantically paired up. Actually, I didn't really mind it, but at the same time, I did find it a bit odd in at least a couple of cases (Alex mentioned that it may be a preemptive strike against fan fiction authors who would pair the characters up, but if that's the case, then I actually kinda hate it. I think it's really just that Stephenson likes his characters and wants to see them together...)

Ultimately, it's a fantastic novel and I loved it. This should not surprise you, as I tend to love all of his novels, but as a longtime fan of Stephenson, it is really nice to be able to point to a book that anyone could read and enjoy without being scared away by weird SF tropes, mathematics, obscure history, detailed monetary theory, existential philosophy, the creation of a new vocabulary that is similar, but not quite the same as ours, etc... There's enough Stephensonian digressions into obscure topics that it will give a new reader a nice introduction to Stephenson without drowning them, and I appreciate that because while I love Snow Crash (the book I used to recommend as a place to start with Stephenson), it's got a few things that seem to turn off "normal" people. As for the accessibility issue, I don't really get that as a complaint. No, the book hasn't changed my life, but few do, and I don't think all art needs to be like that. Indeed, artists often overreach when they try to shoehorn "profound" into a story that doesn't need it. And this story doesn't. What it needs is action and thrills and laughs, which are present in abundance. It's an excellent book, and a good introduction to Stephenson. For those who aren't scared of long books, that is...

Update: Otakun comments with some interesting MMORPG perspectives.
Posted by Mark on November 13, 2011 at 01:33 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Link Dump
Usually I feel bad about doing these so often, but I haven't done one for almost two months and I don't have much time tonight, so here are some links to interesting stuff:
  • The Mummy Meets Human Resources - Sometimes I just can't fit a horror short into the 6 Weeks of Halloween, so here you go. This one's really funny though.
  • Star Wars Talk to Your Kids PSA - This is an old one, but it's damn funny and will hit home for anyone who has played a part in introducing someone young to Star Wars. In my mind, there's no question. Start with the original trilogy and hold off on the prequels as long as possible. Then again, my nieces seem to love the prequels. Even Jar Jar! Gahh! It makes me think that 30 years from now, my niece will be bemoaning that her kids like the Star Wars sequels from the 2020s. Or something.
  • Tiny Legs of Fire - Uh, yeah, I don't know how to describe this. A bizarre compilation of weird clips. Well worth watching though.
  • timeu.se: What Do People Do All Day? - An interesting data visualization that aggregates data from twitter, plotting various keywords against the time they are mentioned most on twitter. Perhaps not the most rigorous of data sets, but a fun tool to play around with.
  • Floppy Music - Imperial march - Man, some people go to extraordinary lengths to make Star Wars references. Still, I was impressed at how well these guys were able to imitate the Imperial March theme with floppy drives...
  • Innovation Starvation - I think I'm contractually obligated to post about any new Neal Stephenson writing, so here you go. It's an interesting article, and it speaks to something that kinda hits home for me. One of the reasons I took up beer brewing as a hobby was that most of my creative endeavors ended up being accomplished in the digital world. Sometimes, though, it's good to actually get hands on with stuff and make things out here in meatspace.
  • Hobo Signs - It turns out that homeless people have an absurdly detailed symbolic language for marking territory. Things range from warnings ("A crime has been committed here. Not a safe place for strangers") to advice ("A doctor lives here. He won't charge for his services") to, well, maybe bad advice ("There is alcohol in this town"). Interesting stuff.
  • Interview with Hank Azaria - A surprisingly interesting interview. I particularly enjoyed his story about working with Pacino in Heat:
    I don't know if you remember, but I say something like, "I don't know why I got mixed up with this stupid broad," and he says [Does a loud, spot-on Pacino impression.] "'Cause she's got a great ass!" He just screams it. And that was the line, but Al kind of yelled it for the first time, and he did it so completely out of nowhere that it scared me. So much so that I just went, "Jesus!" Not in character, just as Hank. I got frightened, and I went, "Jesus!" And then Al improvised [As Pacino.] "I'm sorry. Something happens to me when I think about a woman's ass." Or whatever it is that he said. And that actually made it into the movie! Michael Mann told me not to improvise, and the one line that I said that wasn't scripted made it in there because… I don't know, I guess because it was a good moment. Because I was scared of Al. [Laughs.]
Well, I think that's all I got for now...
Posted by Mark on November 09, 2011 at 09:47 PM .: link :.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #6: Spiced Christmas Ale
I really wanted to start this beer earlier, but due to a variety of factors1, I didn't get to this until now. All I really knew is that I wanted a winter warmery type of beer, which is pretty damn vague. My local homebrew shop owner was very helpful, despite my lack of preparation here. We discussed a bit, talked about Anchor's Christmas Ale (which, granted, changes every year), and eventually settled on a dark red ale with my choice of spices added at the end of the boil. I'm actually pretty happy with the recipe - it sounds really good. Now to find out if it will taste good!

Beer #6: Spiced Christmas Ale
November 5, 2011

1 lb. Crystal 40 (specialty grain)
2 oz. Roasted Barley (specialty grain)
3.3 lb. Golden Light LME
3 lb. Amber DME
1 lb. Golden Light DME
1 oz. Northern Brewer (Bittering @ 8.6% AA)
1 oz. Hallertau Hops (Flavor)
1 tsp Irish Moss
1 tsp Bitter Orange Peel
1/4 tsp Ground Nutmeg
1/4 tsp Coriander
2 Cinnamon Sticks
3 Whole Cloves
Wyeast 1056 - American Ale Yeast

Nothing super unusual here, though there are only two hop additions. The reason for this is that the aroma will be derived from spices rather than hops. Speaking of spices, I have no idea what I'm doing. Everything I've ever read about spices indicates that it's very easy to overdo things. So I'm deliberately attempting to keep it down2. Looking around at some other recipes, I see people adding about 0.5 oz. (or more) of spices to beers, which works out to 3 tsp. I'm trying to do less than that (though it's difficult to tell with cinnamon sticks/whole cloves, but I'm using slightly less than most recipes I've seen), which will hopefully leave me with some spicy goodness without overwhelming the beer.

Not wanting to go in completely blind, I tried making a couple cups of spice tea (i.e. hot water and spice) using two different spice mixtures. I completely overdid the Nutmeg, which overpowered the other spices, so I cut that down in the recipe. But otherwise, it smelled pretty great. Of course, this doesn't even come close to approximating the final product I'm hoping for, but it seemed like a useful exercise. Alright, enough preamble, let's get this party started!

Steeped the specialty grains in 150° F - 160° F water for around 20 minutes, drained, sparged with another half gallon of water, and put the lid on to bring the wort to a boil. Once there, added the 3 pounds of Amber DME, stirred like crazy for a while, brought it back to a boil and added the bittering hops. Here starts the clock. 30 minutes into the boil, added the rest of the DME and LME. This brought the boil to a standstill, so I took some extra time to get it back to boiling (which took 5-10 minutes). After another 10 minutes, I added the flavor hops. 5 more minutes, added the irish moss. With about 3 minutes left, I started adding the various spices, removing from heat just when I was finishing with the spices.

Moved the pot to the ice bath to cool it off, brought it down to about 90° F, strained the wort (removing most of the spice and hops) into the fermenter, topped off with about 2.5 gallons of water, mixed it up real good, and took a sample and hydrometer reading. The wort was still about 75° F, so I had to wait a bit to get the temperature down (I moved it out of the kitchen, which was pretty hot at this point, and it cooled off after about 25 minutes so that it was in the high 60s). Not sure if the extra time sitting out in the open will be good for it, but it was definitely too hot to finish. I pitched the yeast, put the top on the bucket and installed the airlock. The temperature in my closet is in the mid 60s, which is perfect for this. Done.

Original Gravity: 1.060. Assuming 75% attenuation, that should bring me down to 1.015 and about a 5.9% ABV. I'm actually hoping for slightly higher attenuation (and thus a dryer beer with slightly higher ABV), but either way, this should be pretty good.

So I'm looking at two weeks in the fermenter, then bottling, and at least 2-3 weeks bottle conditioning. This will bring me to early/mid December, which is just in time for some Holiday celebration. Indeed, it should be peaking right around Christmas and New Years (though it may peak later).

I don't think I overdid it with the spices. I could clearly smell them in the finished product, but it didn't seem overpowering. I guess we'll see what happens after the fermentation. My guess is that it will become even less potent after the yeast has its way with the wort. Worst case scenario, if the spices aren't coming through, I'll throw a cinnamon stick in the bottling bucket to give it some extra oomph. But from what people say about these kinds of spices, I should be fine.

So there we have it. Not sure what's next. I've wanted to make a Belgian dubbel since I started (about a year ago), but winter is not the time for that. I should really make something that requires lower fermentation temperatures. I'm thinking perhaps an Simcoe single-hop IPA (or mixed hop IPA).

1 - And by variety of factors, I mean that I was lazy.

2 - But then I found that I had some leftover bitter orange peel from my saison, so I added a tsp of that too. I still think I'm under most other recipes when it comes to spices...

(Cross Posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on November 06, 2011 at 12:15 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

6WH: Week 6.5 - Speed Round and The Big Day
It's hard to believe that Halloween has already come and gone. These 6 weeks of horror movie watching seem to go faster every year (and hitting up Fantastic Fest probably accelerated things this year as well). Well, as usual, I haven't written up all of the movies I've seen this Halloween season; perhaps it didn't fit with a given week's theme, or perhaps I just didn't have much to say about it. Whatever the case, I typically do a quick roundup of them all during the last week of the marathon, so here goes:
  • Stake Land - Get it? It's a vampire movie and Stake is in the title. Yeah. So it's actually a well executed Vampire/Zombie Apocalypse style adventure, with one of the best badasses of the year (will certainly be nominated in the KMAs). It's reminiscent of Westerns and features a lot of road-trip tropes, which is a nice combo. Very enjoyable, though also quite cliched in some respects and I don't think it ever really catapulted me beyond my typical post-apocalyptic story complaints... Still worth a watch, especially if you're not averse to zombies/apocalypse movies like I sometimes am... **1/2
  • The Sentinel - Leave it to the Catholic Church to devise the most arcane and bizarre way possible to choose the new guardian (aka Sentinel) of the gates of hell. I originally watched this for the Haunted House week, but it got bumped from the writeup when I saw PA3 in the theater. It's a very unusual movie that often doesn't make much sense, but which features some mildly effective sequences. I don't think I'll find myself recommending this often, but it's not bad either. Ultimately, I don't think it really hits the mark, but again, there are some interesting elements. **
  • Insidious - Another film from Haunted House week that I just didn't write up, perhaps because it is so similar to Paranormal Activity (and I was already writing about that). But this is one of the better executed versions of the story, and I did really enjoy it. Quite solid and well worth a watch. ***
  • M - Fritz Lang's classic tale of a serial killer (of children, no less) who runs afoul of the local criminal element (in a beautifully ironic twist, the police get so frustrated that they can't find the killer that they crack down on the typical criminals, who quickly get sick of this and resolve to find the killer themselves so that they can get back to business as usual). Lang's brilliant expressionism, along with great performances and photography, make this film an absolute classic. I don't know how well it qualifies as a "horror" film, but it's certainly along those lines, and it's an amazing film, among the best of all time (I can't believe it's taken me so long to get to this). ****
  • Dylan Dog: Dead of Night - A breezy and fun sorta horror-detective-adventure film, it falls apart towards the end, but I had a fun time with the movie. Ultimately nothing particularly special, but I have to say that I enjoyed Brandon Routh in this (and in some other recent things I've seen). **1/2
  • The Beyond - Lucio Fulci's goretastic zombie flick (one of many, actually) is well worth a watch for fans of gore, though that's all it really has going for it. There's a really evocative prologue, and that's referenced later in the movie, but Fulci doesn't show much interest in exploring that side of things, instead preferring to devise new and interesting eye-gouging gags (and there's a really good one in this movie, too). Fun stuff, just don't look for anything deep here... **1/2
  • Martin - George A. Romero is known for his Zombie movies, but I think it's a shame that he only seems to make those (I presume part of this is that he can only really get funding for zombie stuff), as Martin is one of the most original and unique takes on a vampire story out there. The titular Martin thinks he is a vampire, but not a "magical" vampire. He doesn't have fangs, can't transform into other animals, sees himself in mirrors, and has no problems with sunlight, garlic, etc... But he methodically traps his victims, sedates them, cuts their wrists with razor blades, and drinks their blood (generally framing the murder as a suicide). Romero preserves the ambiguity of Martin's true nature, which works best, and the film never seems predictable. It references and comments on the typical tropes of vampire tales without actually succumbing to them - an impressive feat. It's not perfect, and it can get a bit slow at times, but I think it's the most interesting film I saw during this year's 6WH. I now need to see what other stuff Romero has done outside of zombies... ***1/2
  • Just Before Dawn - Not sure where I heard about this, but it was one of those movies that was in my Netflix queue for years and basically came to my house by accident. And it's pretty good! It's a kinda hybrid of hillbilly horror, demonic possessions, and slashers. Certainly not a perfect movie or even a great movie, but pretty effective for a movie with such a familiar premise (kids in the woods run afoul of demonically possessed hillbillies!) It's also pretty well shot too, elevating it above a lot of its contemporaries. **1/2
  • Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream - An interesting concept that's ultimately squandered. I mean, how hard is it to make clowns scary? Not very. But they manage it here. I wasn't angry I watched it or anything, but I found it pretty unfulfilling. **
  • Horror Business - I'm usually a sucker for Horror documentaries, but this one ended up being unwatchable (I gave up after about 30 minutes). The problem here is that the interview subjects are mostly... unsuccessful. There are some famous folks here, but they're clearly short, extemporaneous interviews that were gleaned from other appearances. Most of the interviews are with folks like Mark Borchardt (the subject of American Movie). None of these movies that are referenced seem particularly good or interesting. Since I didn't finish it, I won't rate it, but I didn't really enjoy what I did see.
  • Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film - Ah, now here is a horror documentary that gets things right. This one is mostly about the history of American horror, and it's quite good, though I will say that I didn't really glean any sort of new insights into horror films or the history of the genre. Still, if you're in the mood for this sort of thing, it hits the spot... **1/2
  • Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film - Another horror doc, one that I've actually talked about before and which I seem to watch every year. It's a decent movie, but I think the only reason I like watching it is that I really enjoy slasher films.
  • Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI - It's one of those films I'm inexplicably fond of. Among the first self-aware slashers (a decade before Scream), it's probably also my favorite of the Friday the 13th films. How many franchises can claim that their 6th installment is actually the best entry?
  • Phantasm - Another yearly tradition, I've inexplicably seen this movie more times than I care to admit (I believe in the triple digits). A ton of fun.
  • Halloween - Of course, I finish off every 6 Weeks of Halloween marathon with the classic slasher. Do I really need to say anything else about it? A nearly perfect movie.
So there you have it, another year, another crapload of horror movies. Excluding all of my Fantastic Fest movies (all 19 of them), I watched 27 horror films (and about 6 TV episodes). Including FF, that makes for 46 movies, which is still falling far behind Kernunrex (who watched a whopping 61 1/3 movies and 27 episodes of TV shows), but I'm quite happy with the season. Like every year, I'll probably end up watching some more horror flicks into the holidays, but posting on the blog will return to normalcy soon.
Posted by Mark on November 02, 2011 at 06:28 PM .: link :.

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