Sunday, November 29, 2015

Norma: Druids on Parade

I did it!  I finally saw Jamie Barton live!  For any unaware, La Barton is a rising star of opera from Armuchee, a tiny town in Ga which is pronounced with more r's than it is spelled.  I think I played French horn at a concert in the Armuchee Baptist church while I was in undergrad near that small town.  La Barton graduated with her bachelor's in the college across town from the college where I got my bachelor's.  After her school was taken over by the Southern Baptist Convention and started asking faculty to sign "lifestyle" statements which, amongst other things, condemning all people having sex in non-baptist approved away.  Jamie Barton responded to this by ordering the college to never use her name in their publicity materials (she is their most fabulous alum, so that is a problem for them) and writing a letter to the local small newspaper criticizing their actions.  In small town rural Georgia, standing up against powerful Christian organizations is not an easy thing to do.

For all this, I was completely prepared to love her in Norma no matter what, but no personal bias was needed. Jamie Barton sang hell and guts out of Adalgisa and outshone everyone else on stage, including her costar Angela Meade.  Which is not to say they didn't do a great and wonderful job together.

This was my first Bellini opera and I can state categorically that my life needs more Bellini.  That being said, the LA opera did not stage this with sufficiently pageantry.  There was one single set, a steeply raked stage which I hope is the reason for the tenors shoes having heels that significantly differed from one another in height. The only affect was a moon that rose slowly across the backdrop and turned red at the end.  This is an opera about druids under Roman rule, illicit liaisons between Gaul and Roman, self-immolation, hidden children, and Druid rites.  Just the Druid rites and self-immolation need something in the way of pageantry.  Otherwise we have nothing to focus on but the emotional angst and the plot.  While the singers brought the emotional angst, the plot makes even less sense than normal in opera.  Two things really stick out as strange.  First of all, that a public and publicly virginal priestess/princess figure could have not one, but two children without anyone finding out.  Second, that the Druids are living under a cruel Roman rule.  This is asserted without example, while the Druids are threatening unbelievers with death in chorus and having human sacrifices.  What exactly are the Romans doing that is worse here?  I know they prohibited the Druid religion, but again, human sacrifice.  As far as Imperialistic suppression of native cultures go, I'm not finding that one so very terrible. 

Jamie Barton is a wonderful young Adalgisa, all full of love for some Roman and admiration for her Druid priestess superior. Even despite the less than stellar acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA she shone.  She gets a little heavy in spots, but overall, she has a lovely voice and a stage presence that draws attention.  Even while Angela Meade is bringing the angst to her Norma, Jamie Barton makes her look a little hamfisted in her interpretation.   Meade does not make me believe in Norma's motivations.  I'll admit, it's not a particularly believable role, and she is trying, and no one is Callas onstage, but I wanted a little more from her. I also wanted so much more from the Druid chorus.  The dancers that accompanied Norma everywhere were nice and flowy, and always present to hand Norma a gong or a knife were a good touch, but they weren't, in themselves, sufficient pomp.  Pollione, at least, was believable as a villain.  

So overall, it could have been staged with so much more spectacle than it was.  But overall, it was delightful.  The singers made a plain production into an engaging spectacle.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday Fabulosity: One Microfinance Success Story

Elisheba introduced me to Kiva, and I have been a member for three years.  Check it out: 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Apple Pies of Fiery Doom and Space Lobsters

I am totally in awe of a Peace Corps friend of Elisheba's, who does masterworks such as the black goat with a thousand blueberries.  I tried my hand at food coloring painting, to produce:
Fiery Doom!  They kinda look like dinosaurs, if you squint.

Space lobsters!  And our solar system.  The black edge is supposed to be the Oort Cloud.  Most definitely not to scale.  Note Earth is barely avoiding collision with the comet. 
            I haven't had this much fun with my food since making gingerbread people of Doom! 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Butt-Kicking for Goodness*: Sword Coast Stratagems and Hard Times Mods for Baldur's Gate I

Baldur's Gate is a long-running classic of sword and sorcery real-time RPGs.  The story arcs are long and well-developed, there are a boatload of optional quests, battles, and interactions, the world is massive (and massively interconnected, in ways I would have never, ever guessed without browsing walkthroughs, spoiler alert for link), and the extent of player choice in how and what to do in the game is impressive, making Baldur's Gate something that I come back to over and over, playing with different characters and parties and choices.

About three or four years ago I discovered mods for Baldur's Gate, but was very timorous about installing them.  But I tried a few NPC (non-player character) mods on an install of Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and really, really, liked them.  Then that hard drive died the death, and I found some other great games, and left Baldur's Gate alone for a long time.

Recently I decided I would like to play through the whole Baldur's Gate trilogy, with as many mods installed as I thought looked interesting and wouldn't break each other or the game.

I'm currently in the middle of Baldur's Gate I + Tales of the Sword Coast (details on what I'm running below), and I wanted to salute the Sword Coast Stratagems Mod and the Hard Times Mod. 

Overview of the Mods:
     Sword Coast Stratagems: this mod is a large collection of smaller tweaks for combat and spellcasting, plus a complete overhaul of the combat AI to make opponents smarter, fairer, and more interesting.  By no means the only tactical mod available.  Can be installed entire, or choose Y/N on installing each component.

     Hard Times: I read the description and said I had to have this one.  The Sword Coast is supposed to be having an iron crisis when Baldur's Gate I starts.  Yet none of the original game reflects this: weapons are cheap and have a low breakage rate; opponents drop lots and lots of loot, much of it magical, inn prices are dirt cheap, etc.  The Hard Times mod makes the Sword Coast economy much more like the storyline, making you work much harder at the start of a game.  Also adds a boss-type encounter in the Ulcaster ruins.

As always, for more questions read the readme. 

What I like, based on a partially completed game:

Most of my shameless exploitation of the original combat AI's weaknesses no longer work.  The single biggest one: with Sword Coast Stratagems it is almost impossible to lure one or two enemies out of the fog of war without activating the rest.  Result: with Sword Coast Stratagems you get to fight the entire bandit camp at once, including the leaders from inside the main lodge.  The amount of time I just spent figuring out how to survive this inspired me to give this mod a shout-out.
Screen text: "Sound the alarm!"
This is about 2/3 of the opponents who show up for the bandit camp fight.  One is a wizard, about nine have specialty arrows (poison, ice), and one has excellent armor and potions.  Not my actual winning combat distribution or tactics, just getting a screenshot. 

This feature is well-programmed and not indiscriminate: in places like Larswood, where you would not expect different groups of opponents to be within call of each other or working together, you only get the opponents in each group, unless you run into more while trying to run away.

Second biggest feature: enemy spellcasters are smart.  They use their spells almost as well as you do.  While looking for Shandalar's cloak, I cast protection from magic on one party member and sent her out to duel with some cranky mages.  The mages cast one or two standard offensive spells like magic missiles and such, and when these didn't work, cast monster summonings and/or ran away/went after other party members.   

Third, wolves and wild dogs no longer attack on sight.  Like bears, if you leave them alone, they'll return the favor.  Carrion crawlers are supposed to be a little harder, according to the readme, but I found them to still be nice pushovers to arrows from a distance.

The original Baldur's Gate I has so many short swords +1 you end up selling them at a discount.  No more of that, with the Hard Times mod!  In fact, I have so far found only two magic swords, one fine quality dagger, and one fine quality halberd. Storekeepers don't pay any more for loot, but their prices are much higher, and most stores no longer stock all the nice magical weapons and potions that used to proliferate.  This really affects my current game as I'm playing a mage-heavy party and most spell scrolls for level 3 and up are only showing up as boss loot.  I can't wait to open up the city area of Baldur's Gate and go shopping in Sorcerous Sundries!  

What I don't like: *crickets*

Glitches: Very occasionally opponents will stop responding and just stand there, or do something self destructive.  Mulahey in the Nashkel mines just stood there, and one of the two modded Ulcaster bosses self-destructed casting fireballs close range at the skeleton I'd sent in to feel him out.  There have been two or three other random low-level creatures that seem to get "stuck".  I don't know if this is from a mod, or from mods interacting, or just randomness.  Hasn't happened enough to bother me.

Game will crash more than rarely, but not often.  (I will try to start paying attention so as to have actual data.)  Opens fine when I restart it.  Doesn't require a computer restart, although remembering to do a restart when things start getting laggy, or about once a week anyway, seems to help.  

As always, save, save often, and keep copies of your save files in a different location in case they get corrupted.

What I'm Running:
Windows 7 Professional, 64 bit, not allowed to update anything without my specific permission
Nvidia graphics card, whatever drivers came with the card (I will update when there's a problem, not before)
Baldur's Gate I + Tales of the Sword Coast
Baldur's Gate II Shadows of Amn + Throne of Bhaal + Official BGII Throne of Bhaal patch
   I had to install the original games in safe mode.  Once they were installed I could just tell my firewall to shut up about the mod installs.
Baldur's Gate EasyTuTu: this is a platform to use all the great things about BGII in BGI, nicely packaged with all needed components and an installer.  I highly recommend it.  I had to set this to run in administrator mode to get the game to actually play.  
Widescreen Mod
Baldur's Gate I Unfinished Business
Gibberlings NPC Project: this mod is the reason I learned about EasyTutu and mods to start with.  It is a must if you love NPC interactions and dialog.
Sword Coast Stratagems
Hard Times
Sirine's Call
Gray Clan
Finch NPC
Indira NPC
Xan BG1 Friendship

Happy gaming! 

*with apologies to those who play neutral or evil alignments

Monday, November 23, 2015

Several Days After Caturday Post: Nulty in the First World

Nulty, the cat who earned everlasting glory by vanquishing my rat in Tanzania, has come to be a first world cat with her returned peace corps mommy, my dear friend Siobhan.  I visited them in Las Angelos this weekend to find Nulty in excellent health, having well adjusted to the first world demands of sitting on soft pillows.  She was interested in my shoes. Either because they had to die or they were her new love, I'm not really sure.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pretty Things I Find on Ebay

old sari borders, cut from the sari and sold as trim:

I want them.  But I don't know what I would make with them. 

What would you do with these, gentle reader?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Doom that Will Come to the Italian Restarant

Behold! The idols of the old gods of earth are strangled in the garishly festive cheer of these modern and unforgiving holy days. Even as doom came to Ancient Sarnath after the king ritually said curses upon the drowned remains of the people of Ib and their god Bokrug, the water-lizard, so, too, shall doom come to this Italian restaurant.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Opera Cake of Infelicitous Ratios

An opera cake is supposed to end up about the size of a brownie, height wise, but the receipt I followed produced a massive amount of filling.  Anyway, it's two white chocolate mousse layers and a layer of honey buttercream, separated by almond biscotti layers that have been soaked in a honey sugar syrup.  

It's enough sugar to make me happy. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Apple Pie With Dinosaurs

I borrowed Elisheba's dinosaur rolling pin:
More contrast needed.  Food coloring in some form is indicated.
Remember, dinosaurs are extinct in large part because they didn't have a space program