Kung Fu Fighting…and Other Great Love Songs

Kung Fu Fighting: a 1974 disco song written and performed by Carl Douglas and composed and produced by Biddu.

You’ll notice there on the album cover it says “And Other Great Love Songs.”  Although i wasn’t cognizant of the subtitle when i decided to use this song as a lead in for this post, it does actually speak to the point i want to make so…woot woot for serendipity.
Before i get to any further discussion, i would be remiss if i didn’t provide you what you probably most came here to get:
So…yeah.  Carl Douglas, Jamaican born musician and one-hit wonder thanks to this song, originally intended as a B-side to “I Want To Give You My Everything.”  You know – that old classic everyone loves.
i imagine Carl Douglas probably loved the success he enjoyed through the popularity of this song.  On the other hand, after a certain point i bet he felt pretty stifled creatively.
“I’ve got to wear the kimono on stage again?  Every time?!”
On the other hand, and this is related to the point i’ll eventually get to, maybe he did continue to enjoy the hell out of performing this song.  It did reach #1 on the Soul Singles charts and was at the top of both British and American charts at one point.  It won a Grammy and sold 11 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time.
i’ve loved this song for a long, long time.  In fact, a friend of mine once told me it ought to be my wedding song if and when i ever get married officially.  i’ve got no qualms about that.  Sounds good to me.
What i’ve always admired about this song, and maybe put a bit of my own imaginative spin on, is that Carl Douglas really loves him some kung-fu.  During the martial arts film craze of the 60’s and 70’s people couldn’t get enough of these movies. i recall reading somewhere that, when it was released in 1979, the film i consider to be the absolute best of this genre played in a sold-out theater in NYC for over 6 months straight.  Anyone who knows me well has no doubt seen this film.  It is…well i don’t want to say a requirement for friendship.  But i believe you’re doing yourself a disservice if you have not seen this film.  i can’t think of anyone who has seen this that felt like it was a waste of time or didn’t enjoy it at least on some level.
Anyway, back to Carl Douglas.  i was thinking about his hit song and wondering where that kind of excitement is in today’s entertainment scene.  Or more specifically, music scene i suppose.  Now granted, i am not very hip on current trends in popular music.  If i do get a chance to listen to the radio it’s probably This American Life or Here’s The Thing or Science Friday.  All three of which you ought to at least check out once.  Especially in light of the recent danger to Big Bird and the other educational folks over in the Alphabet City neighborhood.

Whoa, stop.  i made a solemn vow not to delve into political discussion on this blog.  It’s strictly for things that don’t incredibly frustrate me.  But i think it’s safe to get away with that one teensy comment.  It’s not an indictment, just a little nudge to get you to support public broadcasting.  Which you should.

To get back on track (pun intended), i’m wondering if there’s a market for songs like this on the Billboard charts.  And…turns out there is, sort of.  Any idea what the #2 song on the Hot 100 is right now?  i’ll spare you a video because we’ve all seen it.  Not that it’s bad or anything.  In fact i think it’s pretty frickin’ catchy.  It’s “Gangnam Style” by PSY.  And it’s #2!
Perhaps my initial thought when i started today is unfounded.  Fun, catchy tunes about stuff that people like is still being made and performed.  As a matter of fact the #3 song is by a group called “fun,” but i listened to a clip of “Some Nights” and it didn’t sound all that fun to me.
Carl Douglas sure knew fun when he saw it though.  Can’t you just picture him there in the theater, watching The Big Boss or Five Deadly Venoms or any of hundreds of other chopsocky flicks?  And he really picked up on the details too.  Everybody did know their part.  The choreography is more like an elaborate dance.  Every move had another to counter it until one guy broke the other’s kung fu and then it was all over.  One of the coolest kung fu fights i’ve even seen on film was in Hit Man In The Hand Of Buddha.  It was a shot of just these two fighters’ hands battling each other for probably 30 seconds to a minute straight.  It was really cool.
Well unfortunately, because of the terrible weather we’ve had here in Northeast Ohio, i’ve got to cut this short today.  So let’s consider this as Part 1 of a short series.
i hope you come back again to check out Part 2.  Don’t worry though, you won’t need to have expert timing to catch it.

RPGs: Great Genre, or Greatest Genre?

Escapism: Role-Playing Games: a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting.

Just to be clear, i’m talking about the ones with polyhedron dice, miniatures, and character sheets with strength, intelligence, armor, hit points, and the like.  You know, the kinds that nerds play.  Not any bedroom antics or therapy techniques.
Like CCGs, there are a lot of role-playing games, or RPGs, out there.  A LOT.  Here’s a sample but this doesn’t really scratch the surface.  There’s games based on intellectual properties like movies, television shows, and literature.  There’s games of all sorts of genres like fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, horror, cartoons, espionage.  There’s a game called Boring RPG.  There’s a Japanese RPG called Families that is about the lives of homemakers (they like “slice-of-life” games over there).
The video clip above is in reference to what is undoubtedly the first of all role-playing games as we know them today: Dungeons and Dragons.  When i say all, i’m not just talking about pencil-and-paper dice games.  i mean ALL RPGs.  If you’ve played any sort of video game, board game…any sort of game with characters whose stats and abilities grow over time through playing in a persistent world, then you can thank D&D for that.  As a side note on the video clip: a true D&D aficionado will notice an error in Keith Stat’s speech.*
The creator of D&D and subsequently RPGs in general was Gary Gygax.  It was actually him and Dave Arneson who originally designed the game but Gygax is like the Stan Lee of RPGs: he wasn’t the only one responsible, but he’s the one who wound up synonymous with the concept.  Gygax passed away in 2008 and that was a sad moment for me.  i didn’t know him personally or anything, but it’s strange when people who quasi-shaped your life die.  i’m sure it will be equally or more weird for me when the aforementioned Stan Lee is gone too.
i was first introduced to D&D much as i was to CCGs – by my older brother.  In the mid-1980s when i was in about 5th grade or so, i started flipping through his Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks and wondering what i was looking at.  There was a lot of terrific fantasy artwork on the covers and interiors: people wielding swords and magic, fighting monsters, exploring dangerous environments…sort of like the stuff i was pretending to do with my friends.  If only my family knew how many times we delved into open drain pipes or traversed the eroding shoreline of Lake Erie near where i grew up…but don’t blame D&D and Tom Hanks for my behavior – i was doing that stuff before i’d ever heard of RPGs.
My brother had the classic “red box” set of rules, which was like the original game, as well as the follow up rules for higher level play:
Boy was i hooked.  i used to sit by and watch him play with his friends while they rolled dice, made graph paper maps, fought monsters and villains, and collect treasures and riches all night long.  It wasn’t too long before i got my own friends to start playing.  i’ll never forget the first time we played.  My friend Paul was the Dungeon Master.  While exploring an underground complex, we found a treasure chest.  We opened it up and out popped a white dragon.  i distinctly remember both my friend Aaron and me reacting with disbelief.  Not shock like “uh-oh we’re in trouble now!”  More like an incredulous feeling.  We went with it, but that was a lesson in continuity for sure.  Obviously we’re talking about a game with fantasy elements, but it’s still got to maintain some semblance of internal reality.  True, there’s magic involved.  But still…a full grown dragon emerging suddenly from a small chest?  Come on.  It wasn’t too long after that when Paul lost interest, so Aaron and i continued gaming with only the two of us.  We took turns DMing and we both had our own characters too: Zorax the thief and Mordecai the fighter.  If i recall correct, eventually they wound up taking a trip to the Abyss and defeating every named evil overlord in the Monster Manual, who all happened to be having a sit-down meeting at a conference room in hell.  After that, there was only one place left to go:
That’s right.  They became cosmic gods.
From that point, wow…i’ve played or at least read through the rules of i can’t even tell you how many different RPGs.  For some reason the rulebooks always fascinated me and i used to read them casually like they were novels or something.  Let’s see there was: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Rifts, Talislanta (where my obsession with coffee began), Robotech, Elric!, Vampire: The Masquerade (and the other World of Darkness series), The Wheel of Time, Paranoia, Toon, Gangbusters, Call of Cthulhu, DC Heroes, Champions, Marvel Superhero RPG, Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplay, Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, Villians and Vigilantes, Shadowrun, and probably some more but that’s all i can think of right now.
i bet if you ask anyone who’s ever playing a tabletop RPG who no longer does, they’d tell you every once in a while they feel an itch to do so again.  It’s definitely a bug that has infected quite a few people.  As we get older and more settled in our lives, the opportunities to game seem to grow more and more distant.  Setting aside many hours at a time on a regular basis to get together with a decent sized group of people can be pretty difficult.  A couple of times over the years i’ve joined some gaming groups but, at least for me, it doesn’t last too long.  You start missing a few get-togethers and you’re pretty quickly out of the loop.  It’s also challenging to get a group of disparate people together whose only connection is through this game and not get bogged down with disagreements, long discussions, debates over the rules, and different playstyles that can make a session very drawn out and boring.
For example, the most recent experience i had with RPGs was a few years ago.  My friend Brett and i responded to an ad posted at the comic book shop from a gaming group looking to expand.  For a while it was pretty fun because both the guy who ran it and his wife were our age and they were unabashed geeks with a garage dedicated to gaming.  They had a huge table with a grid pattern for mapping, thousands of miniatures and set pieces, every D&D book printed, and a good size group of about a dozen people.  But after a while we realized that every Friday night when we got together, we barely did anything.  One guy was a “rules lawyer” who had to flip through books to reference rules every time someone took an action.  One guy got progressively more drunk as the night went on.  Everyone had different ideas of how they wanted to play, and logistically, waiting for a dozen other people to take a turn plus the DM to handle everything else took a really long time.  So for instance we could spend 3 hours on a single encounter, but each person only really got to participate maybe 5 or 6 times.  Pretty boring.
Overall though, my experience with RPGs has been one of great fondness.  Like CCGs, they are a lot about the numbers and maybe the logical part of my brain responds to that combination of numbers and imaginative elements.  It’s almost like a practical way to organize or explain fantastical things.  And again, it’s about storytelling.  More specifically it’s group storytelling.  All the players are active participants in creating a larger-than-life tale of heroism with drama and danger.  i’ve always liked collaborating with other people more than working on something all on my own.  i suppose the exception is this blog but this is just me rambling, something i could do for quite some time as readers will know my dislike for brevity.
Another thing i like about RPGs is that, in the context of a game, there is a clear goal and a clear obstacle to that goal.  So often in life, and especially in our modern era where there are so many problems, people get lost and discouraged just trying to find some way to start tackling them.  But in RPGs there is always the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) that defines everything that is wrong with their world or situation.  Defeat the BBEG and normalcy is renewed.  So as it pertains to escapism, maybe that’s the lesson we can take away from RPGs.  Not that we should slay the perpetrator of wickedness, but maybe that we should really make an effort to identify what is the root of a problem and find new or creative ways to overcome it.
It’s healthy to escape from our world into one of your imagination.  Just don’t linger there too long and forget that you’re there to learn, and grow, and bring something back to make the real world a better place.
Before i go today, here’s a short clip of Gary Gygax in cartoon form from the show Futurama.  Originally i planned to have this at the beginning of this post, but damned if i could not find a clip of just the part i wanted.  In the episode, when the characters meet Gygax, he introduces himself and rolls a pair of dice to determine his feelings about the meeting.  According to the die roll, he was pleased to meet them.  But all i could find was this clip of the show’s creators talking about Gygax, and there’s some snippets from the show too.  If anyone has a link to just the part i’m looking for, let me know.  Thanks, and thanks for reading!
Oh, and also please notice i’ve added links over to the right.  One of them is called “My Personal Atonement” and there is a new post today, as there is every Wednesday.  It is a powerful account that i hope everyone checks out.
*Wet Hot American Summer is set in 1981, when the AD&D 1st Edition was current.  In that edition, Druids are a subclass of Cleric with their own spell list.  There is no 5th level Charm Spell on that list.  There is a 2nd level spell “Charm Person or Mammal” that is available upon reaching level 2.  It’s power is not affected by a druid’s character class level however.


What is This Thing? A Fuse? An Oil Lamp?

Art Contest!
i don’t recall where this image comes from.  i came across it years and years ago and for whatever reason it spoke to me on some deep level.  It’s been transferred from computer to computer, on flash drives and whatnot and it’s starting to degrade a little bit.  If i increase the size it’s way too pixelated.  Basically it’s getting to the point where it will be largely unusable.
So my challenge, or request depending on how you look at it, to you is thus: recreate this image digitally for me.  i don’t care if it is the same colors or style or whatever.  The elements i enjoy the most and consider essential are: the suit, the raised index finger, and the head that is a fuse/lantern/lightbulb/whatever-the-hell-that-thing-is (by the way – what is that?  anyone know?).
i can’t really offer any prize to you but if you need incentive, tell you what: i will make a gallery here of all the images i get and showcase them.  in that regard, please include your name/identity with whatever you send me so i can make sure to properly attribute you.
that’s it!  i guess it’s not really a “contest” per se, but that did cleverly draw you in didn’t it?  thank you in advance to any artists out there who can help me out.  i’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with!
email picture files to me here: doug.vehovec@gmail.com

The Power Nine

Escapism: Collectible Card Games: a game played using specially designed sets of playing cards that combine the appeal of collecting with strategic gameplay.

i like to think of these sorts of games as chess on steroids.  In chess, each player has six distinct pieces that all move on the 64-square checkered board in their own way.  In CCGs, sometimes called TCGs (trading card games), each player has a pool of potentially thousands to choose from in designing a deck to play with.  Each game has a fundamental set of rules that includes the win condition, different categories of cards, and how they interact with each other.

The progenitor of CCGs is a game called Magic: The Gathering.  It was designed by Richard Garfield when he was a graduate student studying combinatorial mathematics and introduced in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, a hugely successful publisher of games.  My guess is that Garfield’s knowledge of this sort of math is key to the game’s success.  i’m not going to delve into combinatorics too deeply because frankly i don’t even understand many of the terms used to describe what it is.  Suffice to say it deals a lot with numerical structures in finite systems and algorithmic analysis.  Since CCGs boil down to a numbers game, it’s no wonder the granddaddy of them all is still wildly popular today.

In fact, i’ve been playing M:TG in some form or another since 1994.  My brother and a friend of his had gotten into it right off the bat and introduced it to me.  i was hooked immediately and it’s still just as interesting and fascinating to me now as it was back then.  Come to think of it, that could be said of a lot of the topics i plan to cover as escapism.  Never thought about that before.  Thanks bro!

Anyway, i’m going to primarily focus on M:TG here because it’s the one i’m most familiar with and enjoy the most.  Feel free to add your own thoughts on any others that you’ve heard of or enjoy.  There’s quite a few out there.  Those of you with kids might even know a thing or two about Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh.

The back of every M:TG card tells you a little about the game.  See those colored dots in the center?  That’s the Color Wheel.  It represents the five colors of magic: white, blue, black, red, and green.  There’s some other card types outside of these but primarily all cards fall (there are over 20K unique cards – if you’ve got a definite number let me know!) into one of these colors, which each have thematic styles.
Gameplay in CCGs is based around managing your resources.  This usually includes things like your starting total of points (or health/life/endurance), your hand, your attack and defense, etc.  As players take their turns, the output of resources increases, which allows for more powerful cards to be played.
What i enjoy most about CCGs is probably deck design, maybe even more than playing the actual game.  Designing a deck is where you get to manipulate the two things that factor heavily in gameplay: skill and luck.
Most games have a minimum number of cards that must be included in a deck.  At the start of a game decks are shuffled and a hand drawn, with additional cards drawn at the start of each turn, the number of which is determined by the rules of the particular game.  In that sense, like a traditional playing card game, there’s a huge element of luck or randomness in that you don’t know what you’re going to get.  Typically, in CCGs you are limited to a certain maximum number of any particular card in the deck as well (usually four).  That way, a player can’t stack a deck with so many of the same card that you would essentially ensure having them every single time.  In other words you can’t play with a deck full of aces.  You play by the luck of the draw.
Designing a deck gives you a chance to manipulate the odds of that luck.  For example, there are cards that allow you to draw extra cards, or search through your deck for a particular card.  Basically to do things that break the rules.  With such a large card pool to choose from, you can imagine how many interactions between cards are possible.  i won’t say it’s incalculable but at the same time i’m no combinatorialist.  To use our chess analogy, it would be like if you had a piece that let you move a pawn diagonally, or allowed you to move two pieces on your turn instead of one.
What i like most about deck designing is the sense i get that what i’m building is representing me.  That’s not an inherent part of it as a function of the rules, but it’s the feeling i get anyway.  In all the CCGs that i’ve played, i like to find out-of-the-ordinary card interactions, and i like to use cards with artwork that appeals to me, and i like to sort of tell a story with a deck.  i think that tells a little something about me.  In M:TG i prefer to use the color blue, which in the game is the color of intellect, reason, logic, and knowledge.
To me, CCGs represent a form of subculture.  There was a time when i would bring my deck everywhere with me.  It kind of reminds me of Chinese wuxia literature, the concept of a culture of adventuring men and women who traveled around and engaged each other in combat with their distinctive styles.  To that end i’ve always worked to create that “perfect deck” that would be effective against anyone else’s strategy.  If i’m honest i think i’ve done a fairly good job at doing that over the last few years.  i don’t win every time, but pretty often.  It’s not a physical deck though, just a virtual one that i’ve built online.  If you’re interested, you can download the client for free through Wizards of the Coast.  Maybe we’ll meet up someday and play against each other.
The world of CCGs has some practical merit too.  A lot of these games have vibrant tournament environments.  Although it has decreased over the years, there was a time when World Tournaments for M:TG and other games had prize payouts of $1 million dollars.  For playing a card game!  In 2011, World Championship prize payout for M:TG was $45,000.  Still not bad for playing a game.  If i’m not mistaken, you also have to win a few tournaments on the road to that World as well, and those also have cash prizes.  Many are the times over the years that i’ve daydreamed about being a professional CCG gamer.  Just thinking about it right now as i’m writing this is making the wheels turn in my imagination.  Sure, it sounds risky and crazy…but so do most other aspirations.

Anyway, what i’d like to leave you with in terms of the relationship between escapism and CCGs is to reinforce the idea that escapism is not wholly a negative concept.  i brought that up in my initial discussion of it and i believe this look at CCGs bears that out.  While it is true that, like any game, CCGs give you an opportunity to step outside the real-world stuff we deal with every day, there’s something to be learned there.  These are games based on complex math that involve critical thinking in everything from designing the deck you play with to calculating what your opponent might do.  They provide social interaction and camaraderie.  And for some they even provide a means of income.  And perhaps most important, they’re fun.  A typical match only takes about 15 minutes to play.  With my free time being so limited these days between school, and work, and homework, and keeping up with things at home, CCGs are little oases in the day.  i might not have hours at a time to relax or escape into a different world through books, movies, video games, or the like.  But i can squeeze in a match or two most afternoons.
Hmmm…i might just flop some cards right now.  Maybe i’ll see you there.

The Enemy of Escape is the Jailer

Escapism: habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.

i’d like to make a few entries on the various forms of escapism that i enjoy.  Before i get to that though, i figured it’s a good idea to think about the concept generally.  What it means, the positives and negatives, and so forth.

A further elaboration on the definition is that escapism is a means to avoid what we perceive as unpleasant or banal aspects of life.  It is often attributed to an avoidance to or relief from depression or general sadness.

i don’t agree with that assessment.  Certainly, that is encompassed in the overall definition, but to characterize escapism as purely a mechanism of depression relief i think neglects a broader view.

Do you think this image belies an avoidance of real-life problems?  i don’t.  To me it suggests that escapism can be grounded in reality, but take you somewhere you might not otherwise have been able to go.  Maybe what you find through escapism enhances what is real.  Or brings you to a place where you have a new perspective on reality.  You might wonder why someone would have a desire to escape from the picturesque scene shown here.  Maybe the view from the top of that ladder shows you how beautiful the vista is from a different vantage point.
For those who engage in the creation of escapism material, it’s certainly not a bad thing.  J.R.R. Tolkien said in an essay that escapism has an element of emancipation through it’s attempt to figure a different reality.  i can buy that.  Reality, for what it’s worth, is defined largely by our choices.  Look at it this way: throughout all of time, there are very good things that happen all the time, and there are very bad things that happen all the time.  If you choose to zero in on only the bad things, chances are your reality is going to be pretty grim.  So perhaps escaping into different realities like fantasy literature for example, gives you a chance to look at things differently and understand that despite what may seem like an overwhelmingly negative world actually does have good things and good people who champion them.

His friend and colleague C.S. Lewis was more than happy to point out that the enemy of escape was a jailer.  So can it really be all that bad?

By the way, i’d like to point out here that quite a bit of reference that i use is from Wikipedia.  i know a lot of people scoff at that as a less-than-ideal reference source but i disagree.  It’s not without flaws, but as an aggregate of our shared knowledge, what’s the harm in using it as a resource?  Even in school, where it ‘s specifically discouraged most of the time, there’s an easy way around that: citation.  That’s what all those superscript numbers are, and there’s handy links at the bottom of each page that bring you to the source material.
So anyway, if you don’t feel inclined to read more about escapism there, i’ll let you know that social critics often warn that controlling powers can use escapism as a means to further or hold on to that control.  This is where the idea of religion as the “opium of the people” comes from.  It’s also prevalent in lots of dystopian stories, where those in power use television or similar constructs to pacify the greater population.  Galouye’s Simulacron-3 that i mentioned a couple posts ago is sort of like that.  And i’m sure you already thought of The Matrix, which all but hit you over the head with the notion.
Even this blog you’re reading is a form of escapism.  Is that so bad?  There’s plenty of other things i could be doing that are more productive right now: working ahead for my classes, ironing my work clothes, scrubbing the bathroom sink.  On the other hand…
In light of that, i definitely don’t see this exercise as an escape from unhappiness.  In fact it’s the complete opposite.  In general i consider myself an unusually happy person.  Today my escape is in sharing that with you.  We all need those things that stimulate the parts of our minds that maybe don’t get worked out that much when we’re so busy with all the normal stuff.
In the next few entries i’ll discuss some of my favorite forms of escapism.  My guess is i won’t be alone in those pursuits.  What are some of yours?  There’s a good chance that reading blogs is one.  What are some others?  Feel free to let me know: that’s what the comments boxes are for.