Sunday, August 30, 2015

Books: Augie and the Green Knight

I've participated in plenty of Kickstarters, but few as whimsical as the one for  "Augie and the Green Knight", a children's book written by Zach Weinersmith (of SMBC) and French comic artist Boulet. If you like quirky stuff like the promo below, you're probably going to like the book:

The story's heroine is Augie, a young girl from our time who stumbles into an enchanted forest one chilly day. There, she finds the treant-like Green Knight, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. After Sir Gawain decapitates the Green Knight in a playful beheading game (to no ill effect), Gawain learns that he must come to the Green Knight's castle in a year to be decapitated in turn. Can Augie help Gawain avoid this fate with the power of law and logic? Will the Green Knight ever learn that people don't like to be decapitated? Why is there a newt here?

The book is a charming, modern (but mostly faithful) take on the centuries-old tale of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Like all good children's books, there are some lessons to be learned (Augie is smart, but not wise, and eventually figures out that rules need reasons), but the lighthearted illustrations and tongue-in-cheek narrative make sure you don't take it too seriously. If you have a kid, this would be a great book to read aloud to them, a chapter at a time, until Sir Gawain's quest reaches its conclusion.

TV: Penn & Teller - Fool Us

I've long been a fan of the libertarian comedy-magic stylings of Penn & Teller, and their new show, "Fool Us," has the most intriguing premise in televised magic since "Breaking the Magician's Code":

Every episode, several professional magicians perform a routine live in front of Penn & Teller (as well as a packed auditorium at the Rio in Las Vegas). After the performance is finished, Penn & Teller try to figure out how the trick was done. If they can, they drop hints and references to the magician indicating as much; if they can't, the magician is invited to perform as Penn & Teller's opening act. Finally, at the end of each show, Penn & Teller perform one of their own tricks for the audience.

I think "Fool Us" is a hit because it isn't a reality show competition, like you might expect. Instead, Penn & Teller treat the show as an opportunity to showcase the art and craft of magic. All of the performers are professional magicians, some of them nearly as famous as Penn & Teller (Mac King did a routine, for instance), and by keeping the quality of the magic high, the show is more intriguing than if there were a bunch of amateurs onstage. You'll see some truly wondrous things, like this performance from FISM World Champion Shin Lim (easily one of the most astounding things I've seen on TV):

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Links: Americana Podcasts

It's pretty hard to find indie American-style rock, folk, country, and blues on the terrestrial radio nowadays, which is a bit sad considering that those genres were born here.

There are still artists making this kind of music, though, and thanks to the Internet, they're only a podcast away...

The Americana Rock Mix - Coming at you every week from Bradenton, Florida, the Americana Rock Mix serves up hard-rocking, little-known music for your listening enjoyment. Aside from the mixes (which are great), you'll hear artist interviews, album news, and some entertainingly candid discussions of host Von's personal life.

The Miller Tells Her Tale - To escape the bro-country infecting the airwaves today, sometimes you have to go across the ocean - Scotland, to be precise. Karen Miller hosts this 2-hour show out of Glasgow every week, and it's jam-packed with country and rock, old and new, popular and indie.  She does a fine job (I like how she doesn't shy away from giving negative reviews of an album), but there is something slightly surreal about hearing this sort of music introduced by a heavy Scottish accent.

Freight Train Boogie - Host Bill Frater lends his name and his enthusiasm to this podcast, which plays all the "twangy" stuff that has long been abandoned by the mainstream - we're talking real blues and real country, something you might hear in a smoky bar by the train tracks. In addition to the hour-long weekly shows, you can hit up the FTB website for all the latest in roots rock, alt country, and everything else guitars and harmonica.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Tech: Never Alone

When I was a kid, the only way a video game could be "educational" is if it asked you trivia questions: solve this equation, name the capital of Paraguay, state when was the Battle of Gettysburg. Now, some good games came out of that approach (I still have fond memories of the "Carmen Sandiego" series), but it always felt a bit didactic and artificial.

I'm pretty sure my eight year-old self would have loved "Never Alone":

Created in partnership with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, "Never Alone" is a puzzle-platformer about Nuna, a young girl on a quest to find the source of a mysterious blizzard threatening her village. With her Arctic fox spirit animal, whom you can switch to at any time (a second player can also control the fox), you must lead Nuna through a series of gorgeous Alaskan environments while avoiding both real and fantastical hazards.

Everything in "Never Alone" is steeped in the culture of the Iñupiat people. The overall story comes from a native Alaskan folktale, of course, but most of the gameplay elements are grounded in the heritage of the Iñupiat, too. The enemies, the spirit animal mechanics, and even the levels draw inspiration from indigenous experiences.

For instance, early on in the game, you find mystical bolas. The bolas are a traditional weapon used by the Inuit peoples to hunt birds (the game gives you the option to play a "Cultural Insight" movie clip, with real-life footage and interviews of native people using bolas). From then on, you use the bolas to hit airborne "spirit targets" brought to you by your fox companion, and to crack spots of fragile ice high above your head. It's an interesting and effective way to teach people about the Iñupiat culture, since it allows them to experience it firsthand instead of quizzing them on it.  

Viewed strictly as a puzzle-platformer, "Never Alone" is only okay - it's short, the controls are sometimes a hindrance, and there are several harsh trial-and-error challenges near the end that get old fast. Still, "Never Alone" takes you on a journey through another world, which is all I can ask a game to do.

Rating: 80/100