Cosplay: Operation Go Jedi is Nearly Go!

Sometimes I honestly wonder if the flux capacitor was actually invented decades ago, as the pace at which some hours/days/weeks/months pass occasionally makes me feel like I'm in the midst of a series of Lorenz transformations and am observing day-to-day events more in hindsight than the present. Though this has been at least partially awesome, as the rush has effectively eaten up a large chunk of the latency period between conventions, the inverse will soon bear down something unmerciful. Anticipation as the countdown nears zero will assuredly elongate the time in the interim, but, as of today, there are a mere 20 days remaining until Gen Con 2012! <>

As you can imagine, the proximity of the convention has translated into just about every spare minute being devoted to work on the costume. It stands at about 90% completion and the majority of the very difficult undertakings have been (thankfully) completed. With just a small minority outstanding, I wanted to deliver as comprehensive a procedural as possible for those pieces that are finished.
I am close to gettin' my Jedi on
When we last left Operation Go Jedi the lekku had been painted and we discussed the finer points of trying to turn yourself blue. Almost all efforts made since then have been on the various articles of Aayla's archetypal outfit, with the exception of adding a mottled pattern to the lekku. The speckles were just a matter of blending the cosmic blue and white Ben Nye Magicolor liquid paints to lighten the base blue a tad and dabbing this hybrid color on with the end of a rounded sponge. The sponge is fairly key, as it makes the spots look organic, an effect I simply couldn't get with a brush.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Aayla's standard garb appears simple (aside from the lekku) but is actually a fairly decent challenge in terms of construction. Though it's taken up much of the past 4-5 months you could probably pull it off in 2-3 if you had the exact quantities of the required materials and/or kept to a brisk schedule.

One sleeve means more efficient lightsaber use?
The Undershirt: The majority of Ms. Secura's midriff-baring top is an asymmetrical piece that features one long sleeve and a pseudo-reptilian print. To make this, I purchased a dark brown long-sleeved t-shirt off of Amazon, turned it inside-out and removed one sleeve (the right one if you're adhering to canon) by pulling apart the existing seams. Removing the seams is time-consuming (I recommend a good, sharp pair of small scissors and an equally good movie/tv show to play in the background) but ensures that you're left with a mostly clean, even hem and the maximum possible material to work with. I tried on the shirt still inside-out and marked where I wanted the top to fall with a highlighter, then used that mark as the basis for an even cut line and cropped the shirt along that selfsame line. Hopefully helpful hint: Make sure you do all fittings while wearing the undergarments you intend to use during your cosplay. There are few things more tooth-grindingly frustrating than believing you're done with a piece only to put it on and realize it doesn't fit because you made your cuts while wearing a different bra.

After making all the necessary cuts, I tidied the hems by simply rolling them back a tiny bit and tacking them in place with hot glue. You could easily do the same with a sewing machine if you're handy with one (which, as you can guess, I am not but we'll get to that later). This step isn't entirely necessary, particularly if you were careful while taking out the seams. I'm just pseudo-fanatical.

Glossy paper acts as a great barrier to keep the paint from seeping through
Finally, I turned the shirt rightside-out and began the time-consuming process of creating the reptilian pattern. Said texture is pretty subtle in the movies and acts largely as a contrast agent for the leather half vest that rests atop the fabric. Using some fabric paint (Scribbles fabric paint in 'butterscotch') and an old brush that spent the first half of its career painting Necromunda minis, I carefully drew in the desired pattern. Since the fabric is supposed to have been the skin of some fantastical beast, I did the entire piece freehand to maintain a deliberate measure of spontaneity and give the illusion of a naturally-occurring pattern. Not going to lie; the painting took a very long time (the better part of two weeks) but turned out fairly well.

The Leggings:  These were the easiest part of the costume, as they're simply a set of dark brown yoga pants/leggings that I had on hand from another costume. Just about any pair of dark brown heavy leggings or light yoga pants will serve this purpose, as Aayla's pants have no ornamentation or distinct pattern on them.

The Belt and 'Mudflaps': Like any good Jedi or spacefaring individual in a galaxy far, far away, Aayla never goes anywhere without her utility belt. The belt itself was picked up on clearance in the men's section of Macy's, but any dark brown leather belt will serve. While the belt doesn't necessarily have to be functional (the elastics in your leggings/yoga pants are designed to work without outside help), it's a good idea to select a heavier belt if you're going to put any significant weight on it, like the weight of a lightsaber hilt for instance.
The 'mud flaps' and the type of sponge used to put spots on the lekku
I removed the buckle that originally came with the belt, then added self-adhering Velcro strips to the interior so it would attach to itself and present a clean line. (you can get the strips at most craft stores) Each 'mudflap' is a simple rectangle of leather trimmed into the downward arrow shape, then adorned with contrasting leather cut into corresponding arrow shapes. The leather used here came from a craft store, as most craft stores will carry small amounts of lightweight leather. Hopefully helpful hint: Trigonometry and geometry are your friends here. Seriously. You will have to make a LOT of cuts so try to adhere rigorously to whatever measurement method you prefer. I made heavy use of a silicon quilting mat, a rotary quilting blade, and a T-square.

I hot glued these pieces together then affixed the front-facing flap to the belt permanently. The rear-facing flap slides along the belt only because I built a small storage pocket into it and wanted to be able to access such while walking the floor. Whether you decide to make the flaps moveable is up to you.

Rolled edge vs. unfinished edges on the headpiece
The Headpiece: The headpiece, lekku wraps, and half vest were all cut from a set of lightweight upholstery leather that I ordered off of Amazon. Upholstery leather is reasonably inexpensive, high quality, light enough to still allow for the use of a normal needle and thread, and comes in sheets large enough for the purposes of this costume. The last item on that little list is the most important, as it is difficult to procure leather in dimensions larger than a piece of paper. Four 'sheets' of the leather linked above was sufficient for this costume, but you may need as few as three or as many as five depending on your individual build.

After taking measurements of my lekku and determining where I wanted the headpiece to lay, I cut three strips of leather, tacked back the lower edges on each with hot glue, then glued the strips together to make the base of the headpiece. You can use a sewing machine or another adhesive agent (like rubber cement) to accomplish this, but hot glue works just fine. I used more self-adhering Velcro strips on both the headpiece and the lekku themselves to keep the former in place.

You can tackle the side portions of the headpiece in one of two ways: make the sides one long piece that wraps around the back of your head or separately hanging pieces for each ear cone. Hopefully helpful hint: Make an honest appraisal of how well the lekku (and the base of the headpiece) fit on your head before deciding which route to take with the sides of the headpiece. Do these fit snuggly or will they require some extra support? If the former is true, you can choose either route for the sides of the headpiece. If some additional support is needed, I'd recommend making the sides as a single component that wraps around. Why? The extra material can be used to hide a chinstrap.
As I have a Merida-esque quantity of hair, the lekku are very secure on their own and I merely measured where I wanted the sides to fall, then cut leather to that measure. Once you have your sides cut and ready, you may want to permanently affix your ear cones to them. I also added small threads of lightweight floral wire to the interior of the side pieces so I could sculpt the latter to frame my face.

High stakes, but totally worth it
The Lekku Wraps: Remember how I mentioned that it's often the parts of construction that seem like they'll be the simplest that almost always end up being the most stressful? This continues to hold true. I'd originally imagined cutting a few strips of leather and wrapping them around the lekku like I would the ribbon on a birthday present. When I actually sat down to plan out the wrappings, I quickly discovered that this would not at all be the case. Aayla's wrappings follow a very clear and distinct pattern, a pattern that I needed to reconcile against the natural boundries of where the leather strips wanted to lay.

There are several reasons why costumers and cosplayers tend to shy away from using real leather in their work; the fact that the material seems to have a mind of its own and is given to 'misbehavior' is foremost amongst these. To combat this, do several practice runs with your strips and note where the leather 'wants' to lay (it'll sit flat against the lekku with no bubbles or creases). Once you've determined this you can begin to carefully glue the strips to the lekku along those preset lines. I used rubber cement for this purpose, as my lekku are made of latex and it's always a good idea to use like-compounds whenever possible. Hopefully helpful hint: Set aside a few hours for this and take your time. Regardless of which adhesive agent you use, any mistakes will assuredly result in stripping the paint off your lekku (or stretching/tearing if your lekku are fabric). There's literally no room for error on these so do whatever you have to in order to be in the right frame of mind for this kind of work.
Whew! Finished!
The Vest: The vest is really the only thing that remains incomplete at this point. The components have been readied, but need to be put together. In order to obtain the basic asymmetric shape of the vest, I procured a sewing pattern that mimicked the same desired form (Butterick 3385 'Missus Summer Top'). Most such patterns are very inexpensive and are easily found on Ebay or Etsy. I first cut the pattern into some cheap fabric, then made all necessary modifications to said fabric in order to accommodate my measurements. I then used the modified fabric as the pattern to the upholstery leather described earlier to size. Doing this allowed me to test out fits and sizes beyond the scope of the original Butterick template without ruining any leather. You'll be left with a front panel, a back panel, and a belt-like strip that will run along the base of your bustline.

I tacked the front and back panels together with hot glue and now need to sew them. You could probably get away with either gluing or sewing but I'm going to be wearing the costume for the better part of 12 hours and want the vest to both fit well and be entirely secure. The thing is…I'm not really a very good seamstress (I'm not terrible, just not particularly good). Despite having sartorial talent run strong on both sides of my family I, sadly, did not inherit those genes. Every costume I've made to date has been wrought from a combination of tactical adhesive use and the simplest possible stitches.

However, I can say the following for a certainty:
  • That this trick does work and there's no real structural or cosmetic difference if you plan things   thoroughly. 
  • You can teach yourself an enormous amount about sewing simply by employing the curious kid method: deconstructing old garments and seeing how they were put together.
  • Practice and a willingness to push yourself will result in quick dividends. Don't be afraid to challenge yourself with a project just because of how it may need to be constructed.
Just a few stitches and I'm home free
So take heart costuming neophytes and sewing-noobs! You don't need to be a masterful tailor to pull off a good costume!

While all this is true, I will be sewing the vest together by hand, largely because the vest will require a dart in order to fit properly.

 What's a dart and how on Earth will it make the vest fit?

A dart is sewing-speak for a seam made along a fold in order to create a rounded or conical shape in fabric. It's literally pinching the fabric into the desired shape, then sewing the edges of the pinched piece together. You need to do this for pretty much any surface area of your body that isn't flat including…ahm…certain curves that will be supported by the vest.

Once this bit of sewing is done the costume will be complete and the countdown till Gen Con will be on in force!
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A Moment for Aurora

It is with a heavy heart that this post is composed as our thoughts go out to the victims (and their families) of the truly senseless tragedy that occurred out in Colorado. We may never understand why such a heinous act was committed but we can stand in solidarity with those directly affected by this horrific violence.

If you go out to see the Dark Knight Rises this weekend, perhaps consider offering a moment of silence for those movie-going fans who are no longer with us. However, we cannot allow this act of wanton terror to destroy our individual cinematic experiences. We will not allow this hideous act to diminish that which we love. We are with you Aurora.

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Nerd Life: A Question of Authenticity

Greetings esteemed readers! My apologies for the gap between posts. Every three months work transmutes from a manageable, if occasionally disobedient, shoulder dragon (+5 for Munchkins out there) to a Elder Hydra in all its regenerative horror. Though much of the past few weeks and the majority of the rest of this month will be spent battling said beastie, all efforts will be made to maintain something of a regular posting schedule.

Anyhow, onward to the topic at hand! This weekend the city of San Diego assumed its annual role as figurative Mecca as legions of nerds around the world made their storied pilgrimage to the San Diego Convention Center to indulge in a myriad of attractions designed to appeal to nearly every aspect of Geekdom. SDCC is ongoing as of the writing of this post, but the announcements and developments that have been made public thus far are fairly brilliant both in scale and potential quality. (Topless Robot does a superb job of summarizing these)

While SDCC shimmers with the glamour that has accumulated after more than four decades of expectations, fanaticism, and hard work on the part of both organizers and attendees, the convention also stirs up a number of less effervescent sentiments to the degree that kvetching about SDCC has become a sort of tradition in itself. Is this another 'example' of petulant nerds expostulating about perceived wrongs and inaccuracies that may not, in fact, exist? While that may be true to a degree, the ring of complaints that orbit SDCC have a mounting gravitas that appear, by multiple accounts, to have legitimate basis. The latter is multifaceted and, at first glance, is derived from largely logistical concerns: the paucity of available hotel rooms, a general lack of organization, specifically with regard to highly anticipated panels (which met with tragic results this year), a poorly functioning online registration system, and the extremely high costs of attending. These are all symptoms that we recognize as part of the modern marketing machine and are arguably no different than the exorbitant costs associated with attending a concert or a sporting event. You're paying for the experience and that cost follows the same general principals of price determination as any other limited commodity. Sort of. As a demographic that features a propensity to make conscientious but thorough use of our disposable income, we nerds tend to be more willing to cough up our hard-earned dollars when it comes to beloved properties and limited editions. This, in conjunction with the supply pressures derived from the sheer mass of individuals attending SDCC for professional purposes creates a monstrous amalgam of limited resources at ungodly elevated prices. Such a heinous combination has absorbed most of the blame for the 'transformation' of SDCC from epic nerdy gathering to a corpulent, grandiose monstrosity: a barely-veiled money grab on the part of toymakers, publishers, movie and TV studios.

This alleged 'transformation' has been raising more than a few geeky hackles for many years now, particularly as a growing number of would-be convention attendees find their way barred by any number of the issues listed above. Ostensibly, it's these logistical concerns that put the kibosh on hopping a flight out to San Diego, but the crux of these woebegone roadblocks centers around the causes thereof, namely that SDCC morphed into its prohibitively costly state after the additions of features from non-nerdy, but very commercially successful properties. The crush of fans of said properties came out in droves, snatching up badges and exacerbating the bottleneck described earlier. Thanks to the increasingly blurry line between movie studios and the major publishers of comic books, SDCC 2012 has been able to feature a substantial amount of content that actually corresponds to the convention's original intent but the overarching trend of appending blockbuster non-nerdy properties to the event is not going anywhere until doing so magically becomes unprofitable. Thus the question/rant will linger: Has SDCC, like the Burning Man festival, jumped the shark and boxed out its original fanbase in favor of catering towards the mainstream?

And that, my friends, is what differentiates grumbling attendees of overpriced professional sporting events/concerts from the legions of our fuming geeky brethren. All of the aforementioned individuals are willing to shell out their monies for the thrill of an experience, but the former are more likely to get what they paid for. Even if someone managed to wrangle their way into SDCC, the probability is high that they may walk away from the con disappointed. Some, perhaps most, of this melancholy could be attributed to the often impossibly lofty standards we nerds tend to hold, but the majority of these dizzying expectations are honed from sheer adoration and the precedent of earlier, more authentic experiences thatspoke to the essence of what we, as geeks, truly are.

 This question of authenticity underlies many of the major nerdy outbursts that we've seen this year and is certainly the motivation for some of the less savory behaviors that we, as a subculture, are renowned for. Authenticity here is more of the existential, rather than the literal, variety, speaking to that which are 'correct' courses of action as discerned by your truest self. 

Avengers: enough said.
It's something that we are struggling with as the Nerdaissance brings our beloved hobbies, characters, series, and stories to the forefront of the mainstream. For better or for worse, this is what is popular at the moment and with popularity comes the desire to capitalize upon such. As mentioned in previous posts, this sort of phenomenon is cyclical and will ebb in time only to surge anew in some future decade. What I posit is different about this present iteration is the age cohort most invested, financially and emotionally, in the outcome of the Nerdaissance has more tools at their disposal to gather information and voice their displeasure. The properties being plumbed for the sake of the almighty dollar/euro/pound/yuan renminbi are those from the childhood of Generation Y and are already rife with collective nostalgia and creative girth. From this we've seen successes on a scale that we scarcely believed possible but also, and unfortunately more commonly, failures that embitter and enrage.

Instances of the latter have hewn fault lines within our community, particularly within the gaming subset. As each fresh travesty is unleashed upon we consumers our tolerances for said behavior are tested. Do we protest or do we buy the game/see the movie/attend the convention? We are being bifurcated according to our choices when presented with this question and it is rapidly undermining our community as a whole. Those that partake are labeled sellouts, lemmings, and willing accomplices in the systematic violation of the properties and industries we love while those that protest are seen as tantrum-throwing elitists, naive-but-doomed champions of a far-flung past, tragically mistaken idealists or hipsters.

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: hipsters are stereotyped by their distaste for the mainstream and that trope is what forms the basis of labeling someone a hipster. While this may comprise part of the MO of the Dissenters described above, the majority of their beef stems from the efforts of various organizations and corporations to exploit, modify, and fundamentally change the meaning of any given nerdy property. This is obviously not the same as disliking something merely because it became popular and it's incredibly frustrating to see fellow nerds undercut one another by employing this inaccurate and highly dismissive term.

Our choices are ultimately our own, of course but, instead of lambasting one another for these decisions, we would be better served if we exchanged our ideas concerning these rather than passing quick judgment. Introspection and communication may not be our strong suits, but critical thinking and the ability to leverage the internet for all it's worth certainly are. Our internal squabbling will only result in further weakening the collective voice of our already tenuous community, leaving the proverbial door wide open to further raids on that which we once held dear.

The response to the ever-changing colossus that is SDCC is already well in hand as numerous other, smaller conventions step up their efforts to cater to disillusioned geeks. Some major studios have taken pains to deliver masterful products that accurately capture the spirit of the source property. There is hope that an authentic experience may be obtained and even preserved. We, as a collective, simply need to be willing to articulate our needs and make the effort to seek out those things that deliver on that which reverberates with our truest nerdy selves.
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NomNoms! How to Make Peanut Butter Frozen Yogurt

What an amazing week for science! The past 5-7 days have given us a fairly epic trifecta of scientific breakthroughs; a banner week for the discipline of physics if ever there was one. Aside from confirmation that the Higgs boson was detected at a 5+ σ level of confidence, we were treated to robots that could be directed and controlled solely by the power of thought AND the first real convincing "view" of a dark matter filament. It's more than a bit mind-blowing to think that we get to see these developments unfold in the course of our lifetimes (something that even Stephen Hawking didn't think was possible). Major kudos to all those researchers out there busting their humps and brushing off inquiries as to the timetable on the release of a flying car. You almost can't help but wonder what will come next...makes my squishy scientist heart go a little arrhythmic.

Aside from these dramatic exposés, there were literal fireworks as well, this being a holiday week here in the States.  The heat and humidity have been pretty relentless thus far this summer, which is more than slightly unnerving as both my most recent beach read and the book I'm presently working through have catastrophic global warming as a major thematic element (full review on the latter in an upcoming post!). Literary apocalypses notwithstanding, I've been quick to employ these steamy conditions as an excuse to do one of possibly the greatest things you can do as an adult: have ice cream for dinner.

Were it not for the limits of the human metabolism, I'd probably eat ice cream/frozen yogurt for the majority of meals from about April to October and then at intervals for the remainder of the year (oh yeah, crazy New Englander who eats ice cream in the winter = this girl) but, since I'd prefer not to be mistaken for a Hutt, I try to exercise a modicum of restraint when making meals out of frozen treats. One of the best workarounds I've come across to date is the brilliance of homemade frozen yogurt and, specifically, the recipe I'm about to share.

I'm a huge fan of frozen yogurt and honestly like it more than ice cream about 90% of the time, particularly since I procured an ice cream maker and began to experiment with both types of frozen goodness at home. After a trip with friends to a local Pinkberry, I became convinced that I could replicate the seasonal peanut butter flavor that we'd just sampled.  A few hours and some kitchen mad science-ery later...BEHOLD; a rich, creamy, deeply satisfying flavor that adroitly walks that delicate line between savory and sweet. Bonus: it's extremely easy to create, even if you don't have an ice cream maker. The Greek yogurt base paired with the essential proteins, minerals and fatty acids in the peanut butter make for a filling, nutritious treat that is sure to cool you off from the inside out. Without further ado: peanut butter frozen yogurt.

Difficulty: Noob
Availability of Ingredients: Most Common
Gadgetry: Optional
Feeds: 1-4 nerds
Time Till Noms: About 20 minutes if using an ice cream maker, about 60-120 if using other means.

Required Equipment: A large glass or metal bowl, a large spoon, measuring spoons, a spatula (and a whisk if not using an ice cream maker), an ice cream maker.
Optional Equipment: None

4 ingredients for frozen bliss
3-4 cups of non-fat Greek yogurt
1/4 cup of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
3-4 rounded Tablespoons of smooth peanut butter

Yep, that's really it; just 4 ingredients. The above list is what I'd consider the maximum quantities for this recipe, which will make more sense in a minute.

Step 1: Scoop 3-4 cups of the Greek yogurt into your glass bowl, depending on how many nerds you're planning on feeding. Add a third to half of the 1/4 cup of sugar and approximately half of the teaspoon of vanilla extract to the yogurt, then stir these three ingredients together until the sugar has completely dissolved.

If your base looks like this you're ready for Step 3
Step 2: Scoop out 2 Tablespoons of peanut butter and stir them into the yogurt mixture until the former is uniformly distributed into the base.

Step 3: Sample your mixture. Since this is a yogurt and not a cream or custard based dessert, you have enormous flexibility as to the degree of tartness or sweetness the fro-yo will have. Following these steps exactly will produce a nutty, but somewhat tart yogurt than can be easily manipulated.

Step 4: Adjust your inputs to taste, mixing thoroughly so the dessert is as homogenous as possible. My personal favorite ratio is 3 cups yogurt to 3.5 Tablespoons of peanut butter, 1 teaspoon of extract, and just under 1/4 cup sugar. This will give you a balance that is just sweet enough to blot out the tartness of the yogurt and simultaneously allow the peanut butter to take the center of the Flavor Stage.

**If you have an ice cream maker, continue to Step 5. If you're doing this by hand, skip ahead to Step Ǿ.
Round and round it goes...

Step 5: Add your concoction to the chilled drum of the ice cream maker. Turn it on and leave it to churn for 18-20 minutes (time will vary slightly based on the model of your maker). Remove your freshly chilled noms from the drum and BOOM, you have yourself some dinner that your parents would never have allowed for!

Step Ǿ: Using your whisk, mix the ingredients together for 20-30 seconds, then put the entire bowl in the freezer. Wait 20 minutes, remove from the freezer and whisk again. Repeat this process until the yogurt takes on a semi-frozen state (it will be physically resistant to your mixing). Once the yogurt reaches this state BOOM, you have yourself some dinner that your parents would never have allowed for!

Best summertime meal ever

Some Recipe FAQs

Do I have to use Greek yogurt for this? Can I use other types of yogurt?
You could certainly use varieties of yogurt other than Greek, but I strongly recommend sticking with Greek (for this specific recipe anyhow). Greek yogurt is less tart than standard yogurt, more structurally sound than Kefir, Australian, or other semi-liquid yogurts, and is richer and creamier than skyr  (Icelandic yogurt). As peanut butter is somewhat savory, the tang of other yogurts tend not to mesh well with it. Furthermore, the balance of high protein content blended with a proportional amount of whey makes the Greek yogurt fabulously creamy, which enhances the overall experience when eating the results of this recipe.

Does it have to be non-fat yogurt?
Nope. You can use 2% or whole fat yogurt if you wanted to. However, the higher the fat content of your creation, the longer it will take to harden to the desired consistency. Fat is, of course, an insulator, whether subcutaneous or in your dessert. Also, there's a not-insignificant amount of fat in the peanut butter, which already lends a degree of richness to the recipe. It's your call though. If you use a higher fat yogurt, start with an extra 5 minutes of churn time if you're using an ice cream maker and add additional increments if needed.

There seems to be a whole lot of stirring going on here, even if I use a machine. Wouldn't it just be easier to pop the yogurt into the freezer and let it sit until it hardens?
Well yeah, that would be easier, but you'd most likely end up with subpar results. The stirring, or churning, process is a crucial step to making most types of frozen treats (ice cream, fro-yo, gelato, or sorbet) because doing so introduces air into the mixture. Why does that matter? A certain quantity of air in your product enhances the texture by keeping the ingredients in your base looser, which creates creaminess. Soft serve ice cream gets its consistency by having large amounts of air introduced during the churning process. This portion of air is called overrun in the frozen dessert industry and is expressed as follows:

% Overrun = (Volume of Churned Base-Volume of Unchurned Mixture)/Volume of Unchurned Mixture x 100[i]

Cheaper desserts tend to have very high overrun percentages (90% or more) while so-called premium desserts have average overruns between 20-30%, as the latter tends to rely on added butterfat for texture. Bottom line: if you want to have a nice, creamy dessert not filled with icy shards then there's going to have to be some form of stirring involved.

Is the vanilla extract necessary?
The vanilla extract has a two-fold purpose: 1) to act as a flavor booster for the peanut butter and 2) to temper the freezing process. The second entry on that short list is critically important for the creation of all frozen goodies. The alcohol in the extract allows the mixture to harden, but not crystallize, as it has a lower freezing point than the water in the base. You can use any clear alcohol (I recommend rum) as a substitute if you're not a fan of vanilla.

As with all the recipes on here, I encourage experimentation to get the best possible experience tailored to your individual tastes. Best of luck with your kitchen adventures and beating the heat!

[i] From the University of Guelph Department of Dairy Science and Technology
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Game Review: Civ 5: Gods and Kings

With Gen Con now looming large on the horizon, hours spent not up to my elbows in costume construction have become few and far between. However, even the most demanding bits of the costume were not about to keep me from delving anew into the realm of turn-based strategy games via the latest release from Firaxis: Civilization V: Gods and Kings. The first of two high profile offerings from the studio this calendar year (the other being XCOM: Enemy Unknown which is due to hit the market in early October and looked phenomenal in demo form at PAX East 2012) Gods and Kings is the first expansion pack offered for the fifth incarnation of Sid Meier's Civilization series. As a long time fan of the Civ games and Firaxis as a whole I doffed my more typical cynicism and harbored extremely high hopes for this title; hopes that were further heightened after a very promising demonstration at PAX. 
Short version: Firaxis made a game worthy of your loftiest expectations.

As alluded to earlier, the heavy skepticism that we gamers tend to bear concerning in impending release, particularly an offering for a long-standing and beloved franchise, is just another illustration of where the gaming industry stands with one of its most vocal target demographics. After what we've seen in the past six months alone it's hardly incomprehensible that some gamers would hesitate when presented with a title that claimed to profoundly enhance their playing experience. In this instance, however, we can rest easy. Indeed, playing Gods and Kings will underscore Firaxis' intentions to continually improve the listings that bear their name.

Akin to the downloadable country/region specific 'bundles' that are still being offered on Steam, Gods and Kings provides players with a given quantity of new items (27 new units, 13 new structures, and 9 new world wonders) in addition to 9 new civilizations and 3 new playable scenarios, including an alternate-reality scenario that features all-steampunk units. Beyond these add-ons, the pack alters gameplay in several different ways that will satisfy both newcomers and seasoned veterans of the series.

The streamlined, enhanced combat aims to please the bellicose among us.
The first and most readily palpable of these changes is how the game handles combat. Civ 5 took pains to improve over the often contentious and confusing manner in which previous incarnations of the franchise treated inter-unit aggression. Those who have played even a single game of these earlier renditions can relate to the absurdity of having a highly advanced unit defeated by an experienced counterpart from eons past (i.e. a tank rolls up on a spearman and the former somehow manages to lose). Civ 5 attempted to address this by introducing an interface that would appear if the player hovered over an enemy unit. The interface presented some of the major facets of the potential confrontation that would factor into the outcome of the skirmish as well as the AI's estimate of the most likely result of said skirmish. Sounds great right? No more spearmen with demigod-like fighting skills? Eh. Not quite the case. The problem inherent to this is that the AI only presented some, not all, of the facets of potential combat but the interface listed the "most likely" outcome based on only what facets were displayed to the player, not all factors that influenced the actual combat. As a result, understandably frustrated users often found themselves losing battles that had been described as "Decisive Victories". Furthermore, AI difficulty operated on an extremely, almost laughably, steep curve. This was at least partially an intentional ploy on the part of the developers (the achievements for winning at Emperor and Deity difficulties claim that only the best players in the world can beat the game on these settings), but the quantity of "mislabels" for combat predictions correlated markedly with increased difficulty. Gods and Kings amends the vast majority of these issues; battle AI presents all applying facets of a potential skirmish and it functions more logically in general. No longer do you need to have a melee unit to capture a city and experience levels and their attendant bonuses have increased importance. Naval combat has also become richer and far more transparent. All this adds up to a more challenging but rewarding experience when waging war, which nearly every player can appreciate. Finally, battle animations are noticeably smoother and quicker so even large scale conflicts can be conducted in short order.

Great Prophets are one of a few new 'Great' people in the game
Other alterations include the reintroduction of religion to the franchise. The inclusion of religion in Civ 4 raised quite a few proverbial hackles when it was first announced, but the exclusion of this feature in Civ 5 drew arguably more criticism. Gods and Kings brings this back into the game in the form of "faith" which accumulates and acts as a resource much like the existing aggregators science and culture which can be spent on special units, buildings, and upgrades to the state-sponsored belief system. Players can first create a 'pantheon', which later morphs into an organized religion. The theistic terminology is literally the only similarity that the feature bears to actual religion, as taking these steps merely provides the player's civilization with tactical benefits (again, just like science/culture). While you can choose from eleven actual religions, the real-life tenets of these extend only to the most superficial, literally just the symbol used to identify your chosen belief system. Every other aspect of the player's religion is wholly customizable, from the benefits that followers receive to the actual name of the faith itself. The feature adds a vehicle through which a player can exert their civilization's dominance over their competitors and help smooth diplomatic and logistical matters through mid-game (cities of your rivals that adopt your religion can influence their respective leaders, for good or ill, and such cities come more readily to the fold, with fewer turns spent in resistance if relations go south and you end up conquering them).   
After a few eras you'll have a cadre of spies at your command
 The last major addition to the base game is another reintroduction of a feature from Civ 4: espionage. As with religion, Firaxis met with a not insignificant amount of gamer ire when espionage was omitted from Civ 5 and the studio responded to that angst with gusto. Beginning in the Renaissance era, players receive a spy. Unlike earlier editions of Civ, spies cannot be trained or purchased, but are awarded at various intervals as players progress through historical epochs. Spies have a variety of potential functions including rigging elections in city-states, stealing technology from opposing civilizations, conducting counterintelligence or just...spying. Spies, like their military counterparts, can gain experience and level up, which, in turn, broadens their potential functionality. What's especially nice about the espionage feature is that a player can be as involved or as hands-off as they care to be and still reap various benefits. Like the religion feature, espionage is easily tailored to an individual's playing style while still adding definitive content to the game itself.

Other interesting and enjoyable changes wrought by Gods and Kings include the reworking of the role city-states play in the game. Instead of ensuring yourself of a diplomatic victory by hurling gifts of gold at various city states (termed an 'economic victory' by the developers), the expansion pack now requires players to engage their single-city brethren via a series of quests. A player may choose to undertake or disregard the quests as they see fit, but, with the exponentially reduced importance gifts of gold plays in the pack, quests are often the easiest, most expedient way to curry favor with city states. Additionally, interactions with city states generally flows more logically and the states themselves have heightened strategic importance that is difficult for most players to ignore. Finally, historical eras (and the tech tree) have been reconfigured somewhat to include more, albeit shorter, epochs. Policies have also undergone some tweaking while construction/research times have been reduced a tad, ostensibly to improve the progression of the game itself.

Gods and Kings is a welcome addition to both the Civ 5 base game and the Civilization franchise as a whole. It is a viable example that some game developers, even larger studios, do take the experience and opinions of their player communities very seriously and this is reflected in the depth, breadth, and quality of play that their games deliver (lead designer Ed Beach was motivated to take on the expansion pack to fix the frustrations he and his friends felt upon playing the base game). I highly recommend Gods and Kings and eagerly await the Firaxis treatment of XCOM later this year.

Bonus: 52 new achievements!  Who doesn't love more 'chieves?
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