Category Archives: Essays

This is a very boring name for me writing about the stuff that’s on my mind. I strive to make the essays more interesting than the word “essays” and this description.

Terminator: Dark Fate

Hey! I finally got back out and saw a movie!

Nothing screams “I am not a real movie reviewer” quite like me not seeing movies. But some of you seem to like knowing what I think about the latest cinematic releases, and I’ve been letting you down. There just hasn’t been time.

There wasn’t time today, but I went and saw Terminator: Dark Fate anyway, and I have no regrets. It’s a perfect Terminator film, and while none of the reveals were surprising, none of them needed to be.  Linda Hamilton, Natalia Reyes, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were perfect, and Mackenzie Davis¹ absolutely crushed it as the augmented soldier sent back in time to stop Gabriel Luna’s “Rev 9” Terminator. Luna was terrifying, and sure, he had help from the SFX department, but his robosociopath was easily on par with Robert Patrick’s, back when the franchise introduced us to liquid metal.

The film brought to mind an entire category of questions which are getting asked a lot lately:  what does the rise of the serialized franchise mean to traditional cinema? What do direct-to-streaming blockbusters mean to for TV? What will all these streaming services do to my VHS² collection?

I don’t have any answers, but I do have a response. See, I remember seeing Star Wars in 1977, and thinking it would be AMAZING to have NINE WHOLE MOVIES telling a story, but I couldn’t possibly wait 27 years for the big finish. 10-year-old me would be pretty disappointed to learn that the central Star Wars saga would take more than 40 years to reach Episode IX, but that kid would shake it off when told that I’d get a 3-movie Lord of the Rings³, a 23-movie superhero epic which got told, start-to-finish⁴, in just 11 years, and that the nerdy, weird things I loved were appearing on so many different kinds of screens I wouldn’t be able to watch them all.

The Terminator films are not my favorite film franchise, but they’re pretty dang cool. They’re not be-all, end-all movies, but this latest one crossed my Threshold of Awesome. I’m pretty happy to have lived long enough to enjoy this latest era of cinematic output, and I look forward to enjoying as much of what comes next as I can make time for.


¹ Mackenzie Davis played my favorite character in The Martian. She was the one who figured out that Mark Watney was still alive. It was a small part⁵, but her performance still makes me tear up a little. 
² Ha-ha I kid. I live in the future. I need a way to rip my entire blu-ray collection onto my FitBit.
³ I read LoTR in 5th grade. If any single road can be given credit for lead me out of The Shire it was that one, which my Dad put my feet upon by handing me a book. 
⁴ I know, I know, the MCU hasn’t actually wrapped, but Endgame was a good enough ending that I’d be willing to let it end there. 
⁵ The old saw about “there are no small parts” does a disservice to those scenes where an actor must carry the entire weight of the story for their few moments on screen, and where most it has to be carried without using words. Actors are amazing. 

MTHFR and Avocado Toast

I got my genes scanned, and we found cool things. For starters, we found that we could get my genes scanned by using FedEx to send a Q-tip to a laboratory. The 21st century has its problems, for sure, but it’s really, really cool, too.

MTHFR looks like an abbreviation for something impolite. It isn’t—not unless you think words like methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase are impolite. The salient point here is that the MTHFR gene, which codes for the production of that methylwhatsit folate stuff, is not working quite right for me. Most folks can get the vitamin B12 they need from folic acid supplements. I don’t do very well at turning folic acid into usable B12 folate, so I either need to go back to nature and eat lots of leafy greens, or I need some special folate supplements.

Did you know that avocados have lots of B12 in them? And I like them a lot more than I like kale.

We found other things, including a strong indication that my current antidepressant, bupropion (Wellbutrin), isn’t the best choice for me. Over the next few weeks we’ll be changing my meds, feeding me some methylfolate supplements, and putting more avocados in my diet.

Probably not on toast, though.

 

 

 

The Rusty Wrought-Iron Game Screen Mod

In this post I’ll explain in detail how you too can turn your fancy Deluxe Game Chief’s “Handbrain” Screen from slick, dry-erase-compatible ABS plastic to a battered, rusty piece of equipment that has seen better centuries.

A Disclaimer Meant to Give You Hope

Sandra did all the modding work shown here, and she is a beginner. I explained the processes and provided tools, but she is the one who applied all the paint. This was her second experience with spray paint, and her first experience with glazing and dry-brushing, so while the results are perhaps a bit less polished than if I’d done the work, they’re easily within the reach of somebody who is new to hobby painting.

This tutorial is long, but the actual process goes very quickly, and most of the time you spend on the project will be spent waiting for things to dry between steps.

Let’s go!

Modding Your Handbrain

Supplies & Tools

Supplies for the “Rusty Iron” mod

You will need the following:

  • The Handbrain Screen (or anything else that will take spray paint, and that needs to look rusty)
  • Two large pieces of cardboard (work surfaces)
  • Paper towels
  • Letter or A4 paper, folded or cut in half.
  • Scissors
  • CA glue (“Superglue”)
  • Sandpaper or a sanding sponge
  • Ultra-flat black spray paint (Rustoleum® Camoflage Black is my favorite)
  • Testors Dullcote spray lacquer
  • P3® hobby paints: “Bloodstone” and “Pig Iron”
  • Two paint brushes—one for the rust wash, and one for dry-brushing.
  •  Water for thinning paint and rinsing brushes
  • Q-tips (not shown in photo)
  • Something to mix paint on (not shown in photo. Sandra used a paper plate.)

With the exception of the paint, brushes, and sanding sponge, everything here is probably already in your house. If not, the total cost of these supplies is between $20 and $30, unless you go all-in on fancy brushes, which we did not.

The P3 paints are available from your friendly local game store, and from lots of online shops as well. Each bottle costs about $4. Any metallic acrylic hobby paint can be used in place of the Pig Iron, but I have not found an acceptable “rust wash” substitute for Bloodstone.

Phase 1: Surface Prep

In which we add a little of our own texture to the surface, and get it ready for paint.

  1. Sand the corners of the screen
  2. If you’re feeling really plucky, take the scissors and score some “battle damage” in places.
  3. Wipe it down with a damp paper towel, and then wipe it dry. This is the only critical step here. The sanding and scoring is just for show.

Phase 2: Patch and Customize

Superglue + paper = welded metal patch

  1.  Cut paper patches for the eight holes in the corners of the screen.
  2. DO ALL GLUE THINGS ON DISPOSABLE CARDBOARD WORK SURFACE. Because superglue is forever.
  3. Carefully, drop-by-drop, create a bead of superglue around the hole.
  4. Lay a paper patch over the hole. It will wick up the glue and change color.
  5. Using a Q-tip, flatten the paper. As necessary, add another drop of superglue, and spread that with the Q-tip.
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 for the remaining 3 corners on this face.
  7. Wait for the glue to dry. It will dry faster in humid environments because superglue does not “dry,” it “cures” by bonding with water. (This, incidentally, is why you don’t wash wet superglue from your body using water. Wipe it off with a dry paper towel. The driest you can find, but be quick…)
  8. Flip the screen over, and repeat steps 3-7 for the four corner holes on the back.
  9. Feeling plucky? Cut some more paper into cool shapes, and glue those down. By now you’ll feel pretty confident in your process. Sandra did!
Roughed up with sanding, and custom-textured with superglue and plain old paper

Phase 3: Spray Paint!

If you’ve spray-painted things before this whole section will seem like too many words. 

  1. Find a good place, like and outdoor place, to paint. Use your cardboard to prevent painting things that should remain unpainted.
  2. Stand the screen on its base, and insert a sheet of paper to mask the inside surface of the screen.
  3. Apply spray paint to the front of the screen and the back of the base (but not the back of the screen) according to the instructions on the can
  4. Wait for it to dry. Ten to twenty minutes, unless you over-sprayed and made puddles. The ultra-flat finish paint is only shiny when it’s still wet, so you don’t need to touch the surface to check for dryness.
  5. Flip screen in stand. Paint the back of it (now that it’s at an angle which is easy to get at.)
  6. Again, the waiting.
  7. Remove the screen from the stand. See the bit that was masked by the base? Very lightly spray that part, front and back.
  8. More waiting.
  9. Ready for Phase 4!

Phase 4: Getting Rusty

Thanks to quirks in the formulation of P3 Bloodstone, this step is like magic. It looks terrible, and then suddenly it looks perfect.

  1. Closely consider this picture of wet paint.
  2. The upper puddle is P3 Bloodstone with a little water in it. The lower puddle is water with a little P3 Bloodstone in it. You’ll be using the lower puddle. 
  3. Get your brush sopping wet in the watery Bloodstone puddle. Generously apply that to the Handbrain. You’ll need several brushloads to get the job done.
  4. Keep going until the whole front face is wet, and you’ve got decent puddles hugging the details of the screen (including the details you made with paper and superglue.)
  5. Wait for it to dry. While you wait, look at these two pictures:

    The back of the handbrain, before and after the Bloodstone wash has dried.
  6. Feeling better about the mess? Keep waiting for it to dry. You’ll know it’s dry when you begin wondering where this rusty piece of metal came from.
  7. Repeat steps 3-5 on the back of the screen, complete with more waiting. Also, do the stand now.

This is what the back of Sandra’s screen looked like in bright light. That’s ABS plastic, superglue, and paint. No slabs of iron were oxidized in the making of this photo.

Phase 5: Shiny Metal Shows Through

In which you learn to drybrush, and possibly get frustrated about having ruined the whole thing, but that’s normal because there’s a learning curve.

  1. Read this aloud: “Learning to drybrush will take a few minutes, and even if I already know how to do it on miniatures, drybrushing something big and flat may prove different.”
  2. Look at this picture (click to enlarge). It is from Sandra’s first-ever drybrushing, and it has awesome bits, and some mistakes.
  3. Realize that by showing you our mistakes, we’re giving you permission to make a whole bunch of your own. Relax…
  4. Get a little paint on your big brush.
  5. With a rapid, back-and-forth motion, paint the paper. You’re getting all the wet paint off the brush, and getting air between the bristles. Keep going until no more paint blotches appear.
  6. Pick up the stand (not the screen) and with that same motion, brush against the “grain” of the screen, your strokes moving at 90° to any raised edges or details. You’ll know you’re doing it right when the edges look shiny, but the flat areas have very little metallic sheen to them.
  7. When the shine no longer appears as you brush it is time to reload your brush. Repeat steps 4-5.
  8. Aren’t you glad you practiced on the small piece? Feeling confident? Good.
  9. Pick up the screen, and drybrush it until you’ve made all the edges shine from the wear-and-tear that shaves oxidized metal away, and polishes what’s underneath.

Here’s what Sandra’s looks like without the paper mask in place. The grey is naked ABS plastic. The rusty metal is not actually metal. Neat, huh?

Finished dry-brushing!

Phase 6: Make It Durable

Because you want to play with it, not just put it up on a shelf for display, right?

  1. Return to your spray-painting place. It needs to be ventilated well, because this paint is pretty smelly.
  2. If you removed it the paper from the screen, put it back in now.
  3. Lightly spray the screen and its base with Testor’s Dullcote spray lacquer.
  4. Make sure to spray the part where the base covers the screen.
  5. Let it dry.

Testors Dullcote is my absolute favorite protective finish for models like this. It drys to leave a very flat, matte finish. Reflected light won’t be obscuring the paint job you worked so hard on. It shows off your work, while protecting the model from ordinary wear-and-tear. I like it so much I’ll totally shill for it, as evidenced by the linked text. I’ve used other matte finishes, but none are as purely non-reflective as Testor’s.

Summary

I often refer to this process in a way that omits all the persnickety details: “base coat, wash, drybrush, done.” For folks familiar with the hobby, that’s enough to get the point across.

This process works quite well on 28mm miniatures. Often I’ll start by doing the rusty look, and then add colors to the parts of the mini that are not supposed to be weathered metal. Sometimes I’ll forget that the model isn’t actually finished, and it’ll stay in the rusty metal state for several years. Yes, Cygnar Lancer warjack, I’m looking at you. As is everyone else…

Cygnar Lancer warjack from Privateer Press. Photo, May 2017. Stopped painting sometime in 2013, or maybe earlier.

It’s not the only way to get this look, and it’s not even necessarily the best way, but after lots of experimentation, it strikes the right balance between “easy” and “the right look,” at least for me.

 

What Made America Great, and Should We Keep Doing That?

I’ve been consuming some history lately, including lots of American military and economic history. When I hear the #MAGA folks saying “Make America Great Again” I’ve begun looking beyond the obvious response (“America is still great”) and into a pair of deeper questions:

  • What made America great?
  • Should we keep doing that?

The answers, summarized, are “bad behavior” and “no.”

Before you scream at me, hear me out: Americans have worked hard, fought hard, and paid dearly to get here. But we’ve had some unfair advantages, and we should look at them.

Cheap Labor

Americans exploited African peoples for for decades after Europe had abandoned the slave trade. The United States put those slaves to work building an enormous economy (cotton was a big deal in the 19th century) at a fraction of what it would have cost if we¹ were treating slaves like actual human people. The wealth that poured into the American South during the first half of the 19th century put the economy of the United States on par with some of the great economies of Europe, and we’d been a nation for less than 100 years.

Free Resources

The United States was born with a frontier full of valuable natural resources which Americans claimed for their own during long string of violent conflicts with the indigenous peoples. Europe and Asia had similar resources, but the nations of Europe and Asia were hard-pressed to displace each other.

The United States grew westward for a hundred and fifty years, killing and displacing the Original Americans on no other grounds than that we wanted their stuff. I live in some of that territory. It’s rich, beautiful land that we took from someone else. I said “free resources” but it’s a little more accurate to say “stolen resources.”

War Profiteering

In the early 20th century the United States was an isolationist economic power. When the Great War broke out in Europe we pointed at the “foreign entanglements” that dragged nation after nation into a shockingly deadly conflict, and we patted ourselves on the backs for not being entangled. Then we sold weapons and materiel to anybody we could ship them to. A portion of the heavy cost paid by Britain and France during WWI was paid to the United States. We only entered the war in its late stages, and on the cold balance sheets of GNP, we came out of that war ahead.

In the Second World War we again gained an economic leg up with early isolationism, and even after we joined the war our geographic isolation continued to work in our favor. The enormous leverage we had developed in the previous 130 years afforded the United States enough of an advantage that following the war we had become a power, economic and military, that required the coining of the word “superpower.”

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

From the 1950s forward we leveraged that status. Two or three generations of Americans² grew up assuming that America was the biggest and the best by definition, forgetting the path we took, and the people we literally crushed to get here. Isaac Newton once wrote “If I see far it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” When we acknowledge those whose work came before our own, we must not fail to recognize those who did not do that work willingly.

Redefining American Greatness

When we consider the historical context, the phrase “Make America Great Again” is exceedingly problematic, and not only because the word “again” seems to say that we’ve lost our way.  The word “again” also suggests that we want to return to the injustices and exploitation of our past.

I don’t want that.

If you’re alive today, it’s because you had human ancestors who were brutally effective in a world where brutality was often the best survival strategy. Feeling guilty about that won’t do anyone any good, but neither will using that as a justification for brutality today. It’s not the best way to get ahead.

We’ve learned to communicate, automate, improve, and refine in ways our ancestors couldn’t even imagine. That is the path for further greatness, and we cannot walk it alone. We stray from it completely by shouldering other people off of it. If we want to make 21st-century America great, in our own eyes, and in the eyes of the world, it’s time to be done poisoning everybody with the smoke of burning bridges³.

The American people are, like all human people, brilliant and wonderful. Let’s educate them, and care for them, and prop them up so that when they stand on our shoulders, they see things we can’t imagine, and when they look back at us we’re smiling about it.


¹ I say “we” throughout this essay because my ancestors took part in most, if not all, of the aspects of this bad behavior. Also, I benefit, as do almost all Americans, from the economic and military boosts we unfairly acquired in the 19th and 20th centuries.

² I’m one of them. It took a while to disabuse myself of some of those notions. Today I look around and see that non-Americans work at least as hard as Americans do. If we’re ahead in any sense, it’s because our starting line was further forward. 

³ And other stuff. Burning things is terribly inefficient, and messy. We should stop.