10,000 Dragons

This may be the most political story I ever write. It's not my usual line of work. The occasional political essay, sure, but not fiction. It's also sci-fi, which again is not my usual line of things. But there really wasn't any other way to frame this story except as SF. How else could I explore a truculent mainland China, with its island-building, designs on space exploration and electronic surveillance police state, except in the context of a future we are currently living? If you can imagine the things that science fiction has been warning us about for decades—facial recognition as a standard biometric marker and predictive policing, you can probably reconcile the fact that these very technologies are being used to shape the lives of real people right now. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect for me is the propaganda machine rather than the robotic one: "Once you lose trust, you will face restrictions everywhere." It's as if someone looked at the era of Communist posters and decided we need to return to the principles of benevolent Big Brother, so they made an app for it. (Download mandatory for party cadres.) This tendency is not ideologically restricted to Communism. The particular strain of authoritarian messaging in question is something I grew up with as well in an otherwise democratic country. My own government has long had a fondness for patriotic music videos, hard controls on the press and civil society, and media blitzes for the latest government initiatives. That turned out to be helpful in shaping how propaganda was infused into the daily lives of my characters.

Ultimately, the takeaway I have always hoped for from this is that individuality wins over state thought-control—but it's a hope I have come to doubt multiple times over.

An odd intersection about pain management in Chinese hospitals

 I still remember back in the 90s about at least one evening news segment that demonstrated the integration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China's Western medical practice which featured the famous shot of a heavily pregnant woman in childbed serenely pincushioned with acupuncture needles. This was meant to exemplify a way of giving birth naturally without the perceived harm of analgesics, apparently perfected by TCM practices. At the time, Malaysia was also seriously looking into developing its indigenous medical traditions, including TCM. Local Chinese medical halls and chains from mainland China had just started coming in with modernised methods of medicine preparation. Herbs were powdered and precisely served in capsule form, no laborious double-boiling required. Single-use aseptic acupuncture needles now guaranteed hygiene. TCM doctors were real doctors in white coats, sparkling practices and spoke science...along with humours. 

I'm going to start by saying that immune-boosting as a quality is an exceptionally subjective value. TCM runs off the idea that the whole body is an interconnected system, and so its treatment is designed to right any perceived imbalances. I've heard it couched as a form of preventative healthcare, less active than proactive. This is the direct opposite of using acupuncture in childbirth, which counts as an active intervention. So as a symbol of the miraculous powers of TCM, it's a pretty loud example. 

But childbirth and its resultant pain is possibly one of the most subjective things to measure. We now know with the proliferation of doulas, midwives and focus on "traditional/natural births" without any of the "unnatural" painkillers, additives and flavourings that a mother's level of comfort during the birthing process is a major contributor to pain. It makes sense. The leg spreaders at an OB/GYN are awkward. It's not a comfortable position for any living creature to have a pap smear in, never mind give birth, which is why there's advocacy for letting women move around, even sit up during labour. That still doesn't mean they won't need an epidural (and some studies do seem to show there's less tearing with painkillers involved because there's less strenuous pushing). It just means that childbirth sounds like exactly the sort of messy, personal experience that it is.

Full disclosure: I have zero interest in children. I'm sure it's a difficult job with no manual. I don't think I'm the right type of person for it for a variety of reasons. It's not what I'm looking for in life to grow as a person. So why am I fascinated with this topic where it intersects with women's personal agency? Because you can't talk about the full rights of women as citizens without taking into account their control over their own reproductive health. This very much includes whether they want to have children or not, when and how. Particularly, how we talk about and perceive women having children often hints at how our culture perceives women in general.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is rooted in a deeply patriarchal culture. Note that I didn't say "historical". The PRC recently stopped its punishing one-child policy, which at its worst included forced late-term abortions and outright human rights abuses that it has never fully acknowledged. They did this because the PRC, like Japan, is faced with a rapidly ageing population and not enough young people to help support it within the next few decades. The PRC's birth rate has effectively plummeted below the replacement rate. This has real effects on its ability to sustain economic growth. Coupled with sex-selective abortions, an unanticipated effect of its one-child policy and a society that favours sons, it also has a burgeoning gender imbalance problem. It's now pretty clear that a lot of young men won't be able to find partners. Idle men cause unrest, no matter how hard the PRC exports them to build roads in other countries en masse. More than anything else, improved economic and educational opportunities for its population is the best birth control as it is anywhere else. After a whole generation of single children have grown up and started families themselves, there's less interest in having more than one child. While it isn't a trend strictly for just the PRC, the PRC does have the unique situation where actual government policy actively tries to turn off then turn on when its population can breed. Unsurprisingly, the women whose lives this policy affects are unamused.

That's how I found this fascinating paper on a study of Cesarean sections in Shanghai, which looks at the surprisingly feminist reasons why mothers opted for C-sections even with education on the merits of vaginal birth. It turns out that up until recently, China had one of the highest C-section rates in the world. In a push to improve maternal and infant mortality, the country undertook a drive to medicalise births, i.e. move all childbirth into hospitals while de-certifying and eventually criminalising home births and traditional mid-wives, at the same time promoting vaginal births over C-sections at all costs. Giving birth in a hospital amidst specialists was considered safer, with more guarantee of the baby's health. During the one-child policy era, when women worked with the perception they had only one shot at delivering a "quality child" (that's the exact phrase in the study, which I find absolutely brilliant at describing the kind of ultra-competitive environment East Asian children are born into), that meant it was even more important for that one child to be born with guaranteed health. Remember: the PRC doesn't do things in half measures.

A strained and sprawling public health system was now pushed to deliver babies like a well-oiled machine. That's not unique to the PRC, but the implementation kind of is. It sounds like, based on the paper, the system understood vaginal births meant improved infant well-being, but lacking the manpower and medical resources (specifically, anesthesia), just decided to make do with childbirth pain. That's horrifying on many levels for any modern medical system. Nowhere in this paper were there any acupuncture needles, by the way. Instead, two patriarchal values were clearly in force: that childbearing pain is a necessary evil for all women (it can't be helped!), and women who complained were weak-willed (motherly martyrdom is a defining trait of the good mother).

The uncommonness of epidurals, or even knowledge that epidurals were possible, meant that women saw C-sections as the only obvious choice to receive pain relief during childbirth and analgesics post-partum. The study hospital had a birthing ward closed to family members, leaving women effectively alone on a bed. This is a system where, not only was vaginal birth coerced, but the doctors and nurses in charge were often openly unsympathetic and even critical of women who disagreed. Pregnancy and childbirth education wasn't even the prerogative of the OB/GYN, as optional public classes were held twice a week in the hospital.

All of this is terrible but enlightening reading. There's a lot more to unpack in there, including classist ideas of which women are more naturally equipped to withstand pain, a parallel to how women of colour in the US are (wrongly) perceived to handle pain better. Once you get to the part about how women who lived through the Cultural Revolution or from the provinces can all eat their share in bitterness and thus have less worthy pain than the wealthy and educated, it becomes incredibly surreal. 

Labyrinth of Refrain: Darker and deeper than we would have hoped

Every so often, along comes a game that captures our attention and lead us down a rabbit hole of unexpected wonder. The last time we felt that way was after finding Eternal Poison (Poison Pink in its original Japanese release), a punishingly hard turn-based strategy RPG with many interlocked replayable stories, each told from a different character's perspective, each going into increasingly dark places that added depth to the wider context and narrative. Eternal Poison was the sort of game that someone going in blind could easily find frustrating and the story confusing. It didn't outwardly encourage you to figure out the many different endings, or explain why the ending you first got seemed to be missing something. You had to find the missing part yourself, and whether you did or not hinged very strongly on how intrigued you were by the character-driven narrative. 

We actually found Labyrinth of Refrain by total accident, happening to see it on the day it came out on the PSN Store. Labyrinth of Refrain was made and released by Nippon Ichi Software, perhaps most well known for its Disgaea series. Seth and I are both long-time Disgaea fans—to absolutely no one's surprise, Disgaea is a punishingly grindy turn-based strategy RPG with deliberately over-dramatic and overly complex storylines set in interlocking visions of hell. It's over-the-top, colourful, campy and has a weird sense of humour. The big gimmick with Disgaea games, compared to other strategy RPGs in its genre, is that not only are the many classes of your different units fully customisable, everything (characters, weapons, armour, jewelry, consumable items) can be leveled up to some insane string of 9s, i.e. level 999, 9,999. So when NIS unexpectedly releases a Wizardry-style dungeon crawler in the art style of Disgaea, we were all about trying it. 

Labyrinth of Refrain's basic premise is that you play Dronya the Dusk Witch, who with her child apprentice Luca, are invited to the town of Refrain to explore the town's magical well, which appears to be a portal to other dimensions. You do this by sending a magical journal, the Tractus de Monstrum, along with a party of magic puppets, through each portal and exploring the connected dungeon realm. The journal records everything that happens during the journey and is sentient, containing the soul of you the main character. You create the puppets by inserting souls you discover into them, reanimating and repurposing the dead.

I'll start by saying LoR very clearly is NIS's attempt to be as different as possible from pretty much anything else. Most of these dungeon crawler games have very basic plots. The classes your party members can be are often recognisably D&D-like, spells and attacks run along the same five elements, slash/blunt damage and status attacks. They're not terribly interesting mechanics-wise, even when the game's premise is otherwise fascinating (our favourite staple, the Shin Megami Tensei series, comes to mind).

LoR immediately throws you under the bus at the first fight—and that fight was the tutorial! Apart from slash/blunt/pierce physical damage, the magic damage is split into Flame, Mud and Fog (fire, earth and air?). Status attacks have out-sized roles in this game, and are divided between Confuse, Startle, Stench, Poison and Abyss. Each weapon and attack basically has one or a combination of these damage types. It's not clear what most of these attacks do upfront. To be quite honest, even after Platinuming this game I'm not 100% sure what some of the damage types really do. Then there's your party members' classes, none of them with normal names. Six classes are available at the start of the game: Aster Knight (frontline/long-range dragoon), Peer Fortress (dual-katar wielding tank), Shinobushi (dual-sword wielding fighter), Mad Raptor (a crossbow ranged DPS), Marginal Maze (frontline/long-range lamp-using mage) and Theatrical Star (long-range bell-using 1001 Nights-style mage). Two additional classes are unlockable as the game progresses, Gothic Coppelia (hammer-wielding gothic lolita tank) and Demon Reaper (homicidal scythe-dancing girls).

I'll be the first to say that I appreciate any game that loves its exotic weapons. Scythes? Gothic Lolitas? Dual-katar and dual-swords? All for that. Just like the Disgaea games, you can reincarnate each party member to improve and increase their stat growth. Max level in LoR is 99. Reincarnation is very important to increase your party's longevity. In fact, it's impossible to access and do the post-game content without reincarnation. Apart from this, your party is divided into brigades called Pacts. Each party comprises one to four Pacts. Each Pact can hold between one to eight members, usually one to three active members and varying numbers of support members. Different types of Pacts are found through exploration. These may differ in what bonuses they grant to each member and confers different attacks/spells to use. In theory, you can make and deploy up to 40 puppets concurrently, but I stopped at 29.

Refrain starts off as your typical, kooky, Transylvania-esque town, complete with freakish inhabitants. There's the perpetually drunk shepherd, the blacksmith who is clearly a cross between Igor and Frankenstein and lusty one-eyed nun. At dusk, the townsfolk lock their doors and bar their windows against the undead who roam the night. Every morning, a Town Crier announces the names of people who died overnight, captured by the undead. Witches are persecuted by the superstitious locals, so Dronya and Luca mask their operations by pretending to be a troupe of travelling puppeteers. Throughout the game, the cutscenes segue into some of their puppet shows that all seem to tell a variation of two brothers enslaved by a terrible monster who try to escape. Their escapes always fail, their punishment always ending with one brother losing a leg and the other blinded. Dronya noticeably has wooden leg, so it's clear this story has something to do with her past.

The big conceit about Refrain is that it is really Purgatory. Its townsfolk are really the souls of sinners doomed to live forevermore. Those ghastly undead that roam the night? Being killed by them is explained as a mercy, the only way to escape the lives they aren't even aware they're living. An overarching theme in LoR that affects its characters personally is one's capacity to continue with the hand you're dealt, no matter how terrible or awful that hand is. Refrain's inhabitants, by simply being human, develop relationships with each other that they weren't able to when they were 'alive'. This balances their personalities and stops them from repeating the sins they can't remember they committed. There's even a whole dungeon based on the town when it goes to hell (literally), and the townsfolk you meet die off one by one. As each person dies, the personality of the companion they supported decays. You learn what sins they did to land them there, so that not even the most seemingly banal side character lacks a story to tell. All the stories are interconnected. Every person matters and comes into play.

Dronya herself personifies the "keep going" attitude. As you learn about her past, it's clear why she disdains others who simply give up when life sends them lemons—this is no shrinking violet. The main story's twists and turns start out necessarily slow (remember: the mechanics of this game are clear as mud, so the learning curve takes time), but doesn't stop once it heats up halfway through. It is very dark, very unforgiving, and it's clear the development team were fully allowed to experiment and take everything to their natural conclusion. It's what makes this game great. There are consequences for people's actions, but just like real life, following the good way doesn't necessarily mean you'll be rewarded. 

I'm the sort of person who believes in a one-pass play through—seriously, multiple replays of the same game to see different endings drive me nuts. LoR mocks those types of games openly. You will die in weird and really distressing ways, and each time, you will see the credits and ask your spouse what the hell just happened. That is part of the main story. Remember "keep going"? If you die and see the credits, open your Clear Data save. Keep going.

I wouldn't recommend this game for the young 'uns, by the way. The story has strongly mature themes, even without any graphically depicting actual sex or gore. The sense of humour is cheeky and black. While the first dungeon starts off as your typical slime-and-stone-corridor affair, the second dungeon puts you in a kind of Lilliput. When you first arrive, the resident gnomes pretty much announce that the "Kaiju are coming!" It soon becomes apparent you're not even the first kaiju to turn up, since among the cutesy snail-drawn cannoneers and hot air balloon bombing units you fight are previous kaiju encased in iron maidens prodded on by attendant gnome handlers. Switches, the bane of all dungeon crawlers, are essentially stone blocks with a gnome chained to them. You open doors by pushing in the stone blocks, in the process leaving behind a tell-tale splat of blood where the gnome was.

Just when you think you've got this, you wind up in a dungeon that is basically a bordello decorated with cat girls in shadowed relief, some in cages, there's an NPC all chained up who will reward you in loving caresses, distressingly plucked fowl carrying whips and succubi as viewed from the tail end peering evilly back at you. To put it lightly, monster designs range from the disturbingly lovely to proof that the dev team were in fact given all the freedom to do what they want. Meat statues? Scorpion-tailed squirrel "neck biters"? A gigantic head of a lovely maiden in watercolour spewing out a slimy slug-like creature from her mouth? If they could think it up, it's in there.

The art is good though, even when it's distressing. Backgrounds are pretty but not mind-blowing. Wizardry-style dungeon crawlers don't generally have the best background art (it is a giant tunnel, after all), but the different worlds in LoR are varied and the change of scenery is attractive enough to be noticeable yet not distracting. The reason I'm mentioning this is because those same backgrounds will consume at least 60 hours of your time, and then repeat (albeit on different maps) if you're into the 20+ hour post-game content to see the true ending. If you will forgive this pun, tunnel vision is the least of your worries.

How hard is this game? Punishing but fair. You'll know why your party wiped each time. Your gear is upgradeable by mashing it with other gear (preferably of the same type) and reincarnating so you get higher soul clarity (the multiplier for how much your stats grow per level) is worth it. Use every tool at your disposal and don't be afraid to experiment with different Pacts until you find a play style that fits. Status effects, as I said earlier, are a major game changer and everyone including the penultimate optional boss is susceptible to them. Equip those attacks as much as possible. 

I would recommend this game to people who like great, gloomy stories, character-driven narratives. If you don't mind that the world isn't saved every time, like fantasy settings in general and believe characters should grow rather than be rewarded, this is worth the try. The voice acting in English and Japanese for Dronya is great, but I couldn't tolerate the English voices for either Luca or Neldo. English voice is good to try in scenes with Marietta in it, whose French trollop accent adds something the Japanese voice acting lacks. If you are prepared to sink the time and see the true ending, brace yourself for some hard grinding. That said, the main game does a noteworthy job of scaling difficulty in tandem with the story, so you won't feel like you need to run around the parking lot to level up between fights. Nor will you feel like you've lost out even if you just complete the main story—it's a tale well told and ends satisfactorily. 

For me, personally, I hope NIS makes more of this series. If this is what happens when the devs are set free, I'm happy to see what they do next.

So this is grief.

It feels a lot longer than slightly over two weeks since Sif left us. My brain tells me it has been about a month, my calendar says otherwise. I still look around expecting a fluffy cat with the best tummy waiting to be rubbed just behind me. Since I hardly ever leave the house, most of the last bunch of times I've left, I've wound up strongly associating with the times I left the house right before Sif died, which is to say, all the trips to the vet, including the very final one. Even if all I'm doing is going out to grab some milk, I'll cross a street and feel really, really sad. I finally stopped breaking down into tears at random times last week, I think. I knew this process would be sad, it's just always surprising how much.

Dorian has been a sympathetic only cat. In spite of his protestations at being treated like a teddy bear, inclement weather has meant most of the last two weeks were spent roasting me in my skin on the couch. We've only just sort of agreed I don't have to be fully robed and arm warmer-ed and blanketed (although this is the ideal). And although I try to keep this to a minimum, occasionally getting up for some water is probably okay. He continues to be disappointed that our opposable thumbs cannot turn off the rain and cause environmental warming on demand. I wished he would sprawl out in a ridiculous fashion a bit more so I have a belly to rub -- he's more of a curly cat. 

I swear what I'd really rather be talking about is my obsession with Atelier games and how much I love crafting in MMOs, specifically how much I love crafting in Final Fantasy XIV. Or how crafting in Atelier games cause me to not craft in FFXIV. Look, one of them is on the PS4, which enables me to enjoy my ridiculously warm couch cat, while the other needs me to be at my desk, which may allow me to have Decorative Dorian beside me gnawing my hand while I'm about to start some hilariously complex raid with a whole bunch of other casual learners, sometimes. Decorative Dorian also has a habit of getting pissed I'm not on a couch, so papers go flying from the desk while I'm trying to dodge floor lasers, ensure the healers have enough mana and make sure I'm in the right position for the upcoming pushback mechanic. Cats qualify as one of the most common reasons for death in dungeons. Sif hated me being in dungeons almost as much as Dorian. Her keening wails serenaded many a thing I attempted. "Hey, this is your two-hours-early reminder I'm hungry!" "You're up late and Seth is in bed!" "I will photosynthesise your stress by yelling at you!" Yeah, I miss that. 

The Day the Empty Carrier Came Home

Listen with pain. On my birthday, we discovered that Sif had lung cancer. It looked like it had metastasized from her belly. The doctors told us that we would decide when to let her go. 

The photo above was the very first picture I ever took of Sif nine years ago. She was a loving cat, who only wanted to be loved in return. She was also a difficult cat. When Seth adopted her, just a few months before we started dating, she had already been returned to the SPCA twice. Although we never found out exactly why she was returned, it was quickly apparent she was a very anxious cat. She hated being left alone --an unavoidable situation if as Seth did, you worked long hours away from home. Sif knew the moment Seth walked up to the front door of his building. She would cry at the apartment's door until he was inside. The plaintive crying only stopped after I fully moved in. One of the real benefits of working from home for me was the ability to walk away from my desk just to kiss a kitten behind her little petal ears. I am biased to think her presence was more calming to me than I ever was to her, but the warm, loving household we created together was a good thing in the lives of her two very damaged people. She had the best belly of any creature in all of existence. We spent many long hours with glazed expressions on our faces just rolling around soft surfaces while I rubbed her belly.

The world I'm living in now is the world the fluffy cat left behind. Sif died on Halloween. For the last two weeks of her life, we watched as she steadily got thinner and more frail. She stopped grooming completely. We did what we could with wet wipes, but her paws were blackened and ragged. The day she left us, she was having trouble breathing. She wasn't able to eat. She could no longer mew -- her chest was too tight. I remember that she slowly followed me around the back of the house. When I realised she wanted to be near me, I saw down against her to read, what was one of, and still is, the greatest pleasures in my life.

Because of that, I had some vague hope the trip to the hospital would be okay. She was in bad shape, but maybe she would still leave quietly in the night. Instead, she went immediately into ER. The doctor came in ten minutes later to tell us her quality of life would not improve. It was time. Seth and I spent the last hour of her life sobbing uncontrollably, while our confused and upset cat kept trying to leave our arms and hide under a sofa. I stayed with her till the end. It would have been unimaginably cruel to not be there for her. To be honest, I expected the sedation would happen slowly. That I would watch her go over the course of a few minutes. The two injections she got actually worked immediately. One minute she was there, the other she was gone. 

I remember the last time she purred. It was Tuesday morning, and she was hungry, so I would add a dab of food to her bowl, and she would purr to let me know I was doing the right thing. I remember the last time I rubbed her belly, on Tuesday night. She had flopped down in front of the telly to nap, as she liked to do, so I wandered over to skritch her tummy. She had a little kitten smile on her face while she slept. I still feel terrible we had to wake her up to give her meds. I should have let her sleep.

I remember the last time she visited me in the study to scold me for working late. That was Wednesday night. I couldn't sleep, and work was something I did when there was something left at my desk. When she comes to squeak at me, I usually pick her up so I can hug her on my lap and listen to her purr. Because she would have trouble breathing, we could no longer pick her up. But she was there, she wanted me to know.

Sif was one of the first people to make me feel loved and wanted when I didn't think I possibly could be loved or wanted. There is a fluffy, triangle-shaped hole missing in my life. I look up from my screen and see that fluffy triangle looking up at me, expecting kibble for supper, her most important meal of the day.

A few years ago, I bought an S-roller for the cats to play with. It's a set of interconnected tubes with a ball cats can reach in and chase. Dorian played with it for about a minute. Sif was unimpressed. In the spring, I noticed this toy under our dining table gathering dust and took it apart to wash. When I put it back together, I managed to snap it into a question mark shape and being too lazy to take it apart again, I added some treats and hoped a cat would find it. The next morning, the treats were gone and Sif was napping in the centre of the question mark -- now officially her personal ergonomic palanquin. When she felt too sick to move, we would find her there, and now her question mark still sits in a corner of our living room. It's her spot, it's not going anywhere. If I were to be cliched, it's like a question hanging in the air. In reality, it's more a string of regrets -- hours where I was too busy working to nap with her when she wanted, or stuck in complex and frustrating raids while she cried at me to stop and not stress out. She was a good, loving cat. I wished I was better to her.
  • Current Mood
    melancholy melancholy

Bitey Chai

So I got into this chai thing fairly late into the game. It started with some tea bags the spouse got me from Numi, which is out in Oakland and whose loose leaf teas I am very fond of. Their tea bags tend to be on the weak side for me, unfortunately. It's even sadder when you consider that most of their weird, creative tea mixes only come in tea bags. I'm still bitter they stopped selling their ultra-luxe vanilla tea. It cost about $80 a pound, so I bought it on Earth Day at a discount once a year, then saved it as a pricey treat until the next. I am thinking I will never get a vanilla tea quite so flavourful and strong ever again. But anyway, that chai.

Collapse )

Collapse )
  • Current Mood
    accomplished accomplished
  • Tags

The short and somewhat tedious Tart Saga

After learning rather recently that the spouse loves pineapple, and knowing that I only eat pineapple in jam form, preferably on jam tarts, I have resolved to make pineapple tarts at some point before the end of the year. Pineapple tarts are a staple festive biscuit in Malaysia during Aidilfitri. It's kind of like love letters for Chinese New Year and muruku for Deepavali. My mother makes amazing pineapple tarts, which she sometimes sold. The delicate, buttery biscuit dough goes amazingly well with a fruit that makes your tongue feel as scratchy as a cat's -- a trait magically tempered by cooking pineapple and blending it to a mush. (Just cooking cut pineapple pieces doesn't seem to help as much -- though it does make for painfully tart curry, which is great if you're say, cooking a particularly strong-tasting fish.)

Mom shaped her tarts two ways -- the traditional shape, which is a flat, round piece of dough with an indentation in the centre for the jam, and wrapping the jam in a circle of dough, snipping "scales" into its top side and painting on a crown so that it looks like a mini-pineapple. Suffice to say, the traditional tart shape is faster to make, especially if you have a tart tamper to knock out the dough en masse. When I was a kid, I remember my mother using a purpose-built tart stamp, which was a plastic tube with the stamp face on one end and a syringe handle on the other. The idea was that you stamped out individual tarts from a suitably rolled piece of dough. The problem is, I've not actually seen one of these devices since I was maybe nine. I wasn't even sure if it was something only available in Malaysia. A cursory search online, once I figured out the right keywords, brings back a cookie cutter with a similar idea. Unsurprisingly, most shops online ship it from Malaysia.

When I have made jam tarts before, it typically involved either cutting out circles of dough and pushing an indentation in the center with a smaller item, or just rolling the dough into balls and sticking my thumb into them. I much prefer the latter, seeing as how I am lazy and would like cookies faster. This is possibly the same reason I thought a gadget or mould would be nice.

So I wandered down to Sur la Table, because it has everything from plastic ice cream sandwich shapers to autumn leaf-shaped tart stamps no one could ever need, thinking someone out there must have invented something of a rough approximation. I knew they had tart tampers, which are basically a wooden tool handle without the tool head and flattened ends. I have resisted getting these before because it still involves cutting out circles of dough manually and seriously, why am I paying $12 for a wooden tool handle without the tool head?

Shop assistants are Sur la Table have their hearts in the right place -- they're always trying to help. The first person I asked about tart moulds led me to their shelf of fluted tart pans. This was simply a vocabulary error on my part. In American, tarts are firstly a sort of really flat pie. Once I explained that these were jam tarts, the nice lady then offered I could just use my thumb to make a dent in the dough. I carefully explained that I'd already tried this, and what I was looking for a gadget that would shape the dough. She then asked if I wanted a cookie cutter. I was about to explain it was a tart cutter, not a cookie cutter, and had to stop myself halfway because again, an American tart is a very flat pie, and all their biscuits and tarts are technically cookies. So, okay, a cookie cutter. Cookie cutters in America are honestly what they say they are, fancy pattern stamps and cutters shaped like Christmas trees. We tried, but there didn't seem anything that would fit. She did show me their autumn leaf tart stamps, which I admit I was tempted by because they're super pretty, but had to be honest with myself about how often I would actually use one of these guys.

Eventually, we flag a more senior assistant at the store, who first asked why didn't I just used my thumb to make an indentation. I was starting to feel slightly stupid, I mean, why didn't I just continue using my goddamn thumb? He did make a great suggestion of using the back of a measuring spoon, which I thanked him for because that's a smashing idea and I feel like I was dumb for wanting a fancy gadget. It's only a step up from rolling dough into balls and using my thumb, and I really got to respect these guys -- they didn't immediately recommend product, even though they could have, and tried to help me find a product when I insisted on one. Thumbs up! (I will now cease to use the word "thumb".)

Sur la Table is basically a sort of elaborate Afi trap. It's almost as effective an Afi trap as a random and unexpected cat belly in my path. They were having some sort of up to 75% sale. I'm lucky I only came out of it with a cake slice server for myself instead of something loony like a medium sized La Creuset dutch oven. What would I do with a dutch oven? Bake a chicken in the oven. Other than that, I don't exactly know. Maybe talk the spouse into making his treacly baked beans. I was genuinely tempted by the non-stick, dishwasher safe porcelain skillets, because I have always wanted a replacement skillet for our worn out non-stick pan I could roll omelets and crepes in. Moral of the story, question everything I want to buy at Sur la Table (that's most of the store), and think creatively about how to make stuff, because gadgets are mostly for the weak. As I type this out, I'm already seeing that cutting out squares or circles of dough, folding up the sides and fluting it all around with a fork could technically create something like what I'm after. Maybe someday, I will even have the patience to make those mini pineapples.

The Return of Food Inspector Cat

Early this morning, Seth rolled me out of bed to see something, "disturbing but also adorable". When I trudged into the kitchen, a small grey creature was sitting above our kitchen cabinets (the world's most ignored dust trap) making angry noises at all and sundry. My perfect, beautiful cat had probably gone up there to check for breakfast. My perfect, beautiful husband had to grab a cat throwing a small tantrum while trying to avoid his reach (only Seth is tall or long-armed enough to get to the top of the kitchen cabinets).

We haven't yet figured out if a) Dorian hopped up there and got "stuck in a tree", which means both us humans didn't hear him crying for a bunch of hours or b) Dorian hopped up there and could get down perfectly fine on his own; he was yelling at us so we wouldn't bring him down.

I do know that previous to this, I've found treat bags I had safely stored on top of the fridge with its innards ripped out on the floor. Yesterday, he tried to supplement his diet by tearing a hole in a new bag of dry polenta I left on the dining table. A couple of weeks ago, he managed to pry our dried goods cupboard by jumping onto the counter and pushing out the cupboard door with his...paw? Head? Who knows? And we found a ravaged bag of dried anchovies, a broken bag of unpopped popcorn and cat sick probably as a result of trying to eat unpopped popcorn. He likes popcorn. Popcorn is the best, next to pizza, and whatever else I'm eating, because stuff I eat tastes good.

When cr0wgrrl and spouse showed up at our address with meat buns and strawberry sponge cake roll, Food Inspector Cat pattered right up, stood with his face on her knee and tried to nip the meat bun from her hands. He spent the next two or three hours trying to sneak away with a slice of strawberry sponge cake roll when we weren't looking. This is possibly more entertaining than it should be. The farthest he got was getting a slice close to the edge of the table while I was on my laptop.

He is also fully cognizant that items like pizzas and sandwiches require both hands and my mouth to eat. I don't have to pinch off a piece for him, even, he can just nibble the other end of whatever it is I have. My mouth is occupied, so I can't warn him off. I need both hands to operate the average American pizza slice, so I can't shove him away. Naturally, if Seth happens to walk by while this is occurring, Dorian switches back to being a perfectly gentlemanly loaf next to my plate. Such a perfectly gentlemanly loaf is fully capable of looking up at us with loving eyes and wait until we are done with our portion of the food before nibbling the leftovers. He doesn't even mind if he has to lick our bowls clean. This is one of his free services, apart from intense kitten masseuse sessions. He loves us so much. And my Rice Krispies too.
  • Current Mood
    amused amused
  • Tags


So, Robomaid, our Neato XV-11, seems to have finally coughed up its last hairball. Over the past year, it was giving out more frequent and more difficult to diagnose "My brush is stuck," error messages. Usually, this means cleaning under the ball bearings on either side of its brush, as well as the brush itself. About 3 months ago, no amount of cleaning would help. I finally managed to see that the shaft attached to the drive belt seemed to have accumulated hair around one end. The shaft itself is a solid piece of forged metal with no open ends, so I tried using tweezers to reach through the narrow opening and pinch hair out. This was a good idea in theory, but the tweezers weren't strong enough to pry open four years of twisted hair.

I then figured that if I could remove the bottom casing, I might have a chance of cutting away the hair completely. But even after taking out what I thought were all the screws, there was no conceivable way I could see to remove the top and bottom casing from each other. I tried this twice, once on my own and another following a video to figure out which screws I missed. Even then I was doubtful I could remove the top casing without actually breaking something. Plus, it wasn't obvious to me that the bottom casing would come free the way I thought it would, with an obvious entry to the shaft for cleaning.

An online search gave some suggestions. Among them, I tried using WD-40 to melt the hair (this seemed chemically implausible), or loosen it. This totally didn't work, although WD-40 is good to help clean out dust that might be blocking you from seeing straight down under the drive belt. I tried Nair on a cotton bud for the same purpose -- which sort of worked. Unfortunately, Nair is an opaque cream that is more trouble than help. One of the suggestions was to use a Havel's Ultra Pro Seam Ripper, which is basically a thin scalpel with a hooked end (like a very tiny halberd). Apart from the sheer fun of wielding a small scalpel, it wasn't entirely obvious to me at first how I was supposed to apply it to the shaft. What you have to do is essentially run the hooked end facing downwards to catch on and rip into the ring of hair. Any hair that comes loose needs to be tweezed out. About 2 hours of sawing later, I finally saw the glint of metal in the darkness. A test drive of Robomaid suggested she was cured.

Then I tried running it for real to vacuum our bedroom. Five minutes later, Robomaid stopped with "My brush is stuck." In a house with two cats and two people, I can sympathise if a wee robot vacuum decides to face down the dust under our bed and get a heart attack. I tried cleaning the brushes, pulling out a little ring of suspiciously beige fur from under one of the ball bearings. No dice.

At this point, even though a tiny part of my soul goes, "You cannot win overly-sensitive precision tool!", I am leaning on just getting the pros to pry the damn thing open and figure out what I couldn't. Mind you, this is cautious optimism. Robomaid has served us well for the past four or five years. But if the problem is hair, and I can't remove it, we could be looking at something that will repeat itself later. I mean, I just replaced the batteries with new ones! So a part of me wants to spend the night sawing at the drive shaft some more, and a part of me is like, "I'll just pay someone $95 shipping included to fix that in the morning." Seth leans in favour of the latter. He also suggested three months ago that I should get one of the newer Neatos, which comes complete with Wi-Fi, a mobile phone app, telescopic brushing arms (those make me go oooh!) and a better battery. Given that Black Friday is coming up, it seems a good idea to save up for that. Honestly, a second robot vacuum isn't a terrible idea. Owning one has been a real quality of life improvement. It's near impossible for me to reach into the places Robomaid could with a normal vacuum, and a normal vacuum is great for specific narrow places, but gives me tinnitus in the process. Also, cats. One of my cats is the fur of three cats. The other one seems to like rolling in dirt. And leaves. And bits of cardboard. I can see Robomaid just scanning our carpets and blaming us for all the injustice in the world from the crumbs. The crumbs!

We should just assume I come from that generation of people where electronics don't go tits up on you after five years.

Final Fantasy XIV Fan Fest 2016: When you realise the other 2,500 people are more hardcore than you

For my birthday this year, we decided to head to Vegas for the FFXIV Fan Fest -- an incredibly impromptu decision that was all the more amazing in that we actually got tickets (all the tickets apparently sold out in 2 hours). I hadn't been to Vegas before, so for me it was a kind of sociological experiment. I also hadn't been to a gaming convention before, being that for the vast majority of my game-playing life, they were either a) too far or b) too expensive. That I had a buddy with me honestly helped.

Some back story here: Seth and I have been playing FFXIV 2.0 since beta, or roughly around the last 3 years. It's been the keeper MMO for us, and we've been playing a lot of different MMOs. The primary draw is the system (you can play every class/job (specialisation) you want on the same character) and in particular, the crafting. Three years in, my end-game goals are still primarily making furniture (more on that later). It's also an amazingly tight game in terms of writing consistency and bugs (or the remarkable lack of them per patch). The graphics and soundtrack are on par with the current Final Fantasy games in general, which is to say they're gorgeous. I believe the "Yoshitaka Amano designed the title graphic" thing is still alive. Again three years in, I still catch myself wandering around some zone and suddenly realising the horizon or the plants are breathtaking, even if I've passed that place hundreds of times before. Yes, it's kind of a resource hog, but it's also worth the good graphics card.

So the game is something close to both of us, and we never thought we'd ever make it to the Fan Fest, but we did.

Collapse )