The Sunday Magazine: Petite Sirah

When I teach my wine course for wines under $15 I ask people what wine they serve with burgers off the grill in the summertime. The usual answers are a bunch of white wines which opens the door for me to introduce the class to an underrated grape varietal, Petite Sirah.

Petite Sirah was a varietal imported from France, to California, where it was called Durif. In France it was never a very remarkable grape for wine and that is probably one of the reasons it isn’t very well known. If French winemakers can’t do something with it there must be a reason….right? This is an example of an unremarkable grape in one microclimate being transferred to a different one and flourishing. As the California vintners planted it the drier climate there caused it to blossom, literally and figuratively, and the small intense fruit to produce some wonderful red wines.

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Petite Sirah Grapes on the vine

Over the last 15-20 years these California Petite Sirahs are true red wine bargains although you can find expensive ones, the more economical versions are very good. These are great wines for cheeseburgers and I have successfully paired them with spicy curry dishes. Petite Sirah often manages to be the perfect answer to foods that don’t have obvious food pairings. These are also red wines that are very drinkable when you purchase them, they can improve with some aging but the ones I recommend below are ready to go right from the store shelf to your glass.

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Spellbound Petite Sirah is my favorite low price Petite Sirah regularly found for less than $15. Spellbound is the vineyard run by Rob Mondavi, Jr. the fourth generation of Modavis to go into winemaking. His Petite Sirah is one of the easiest drinking red wines you can buy and it has gourmand notes of caramel and coffee to the nose before getting a rich deep berry flavor over the oak of the barrels used to age the wine. The currently available 2012 vintage is excellent and shows all of the qualities that make Spellbound Petite Sirah exceptional.

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McManis Petite Sirah runs a close second to Spellbound for me. It generally has a more pronounced caramel quality and the berries are juicier which makes it drink much softer. The 2012 vintage is available now for less than $10.

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One of the things I find fascinating about Petite Sirah is the variations that can be found and the Cupcake Vineyards Petite Sirah is very different than either of the ones above. The winemakers accentuate all of the sweeter character inherent in the grape and so this becomes the perfect companion to a dessert of summer berries and whipped cream or key lime pie. The 2012 vintage overflows in cherry, raspberry, and blackberry flavors. This is on top of a nose of cinnamon and coffee as you sniff before drinking. This is also widely available for less than $15.

So fire up your grill, gather some summer fruit and pop the cork on a Petite Sirah it’s a perfect summertime combination.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Newport Mansions

We currently live in a world where the power brokers like putting their names on things, often as big as they can get it. The size of the sign somehow has something to do with the size of the influence, I guess. Not that competition among the wealthy is anything new it has been going on for centuries. Each trying to have the biggest and/or grandest whatever is important in that era. I am reminded of that every year when I attend a scientific conference in Newport, RI.

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Chateau sur Mer

For the burgeoning American industrialists of the late 19th century the competition was for the biggest house with the most exotic building materials designed by the premiere architects of the day. For the architects these had to be half dream project-half nightmare. The dream part was having a client who could acquire any material you wanted to be incorporated into the design and you would be encouraged to push the envelope on that design to be wholly original. The nightmare part must have been the pressure of not delivering to the most powerful families in America, if they weren’t satisfied you were probably done as an architect. I’m sure the same thing is true for bespoke perfumes as the perfumer has some freedom to create singularly but if it misses what the client is hoping for then the perfumer will be seen as untalented for not being able to deliver.

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Beechwood

One heavy concentration of these mansions is located in Newport. The influential families of the day had decided that Newport was where they wanted to spend their summers and they had to have homes which confirmed their status. The acknowledged first mansion was called Chateau sur Mer which was built by the Wetmore family who had made their fortune in the shipping business. Chateau sur Mer was built in 1852 but it was barely twenty years later when they asked architect Richard Morris Hunt to redesign it in what was called the “Second Empire” style. The Wetmores had started the race.

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Marble House

Once it had been started the two most prominent families of the day, the Astors and the Vanderbilts, had to enter. What is funny is the same architect, Mr. Hunt, was used almost in succession as the Astors employed him to renovate Beechwood. William Vanderbilt would hire him to build Marble House only to have his older brother Cornelius outdo those all by having Mr. Hunt design The Breakers.

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The Breakers

My conference is at Salve Regina University and it sits next door to The Breakers while the once Carriage House and stables of Chateau sur Mer now make up Wetmore Hall. Making an interesting bit of historical bookends to my daily walk back and forth across campus.

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Richard Morris Hunt

One final thought about all of this was none of these were the main residence for any of these families they were referred to as “cottages”. They spent 8-10 weeks a year here. The influence of this summer society is still apparent today as their preferred method of play was sailing and tennis. Even there the competitive nature would rear its head and the early beginnings of the America’s Cup and tennis’ US Open were borne out of this endless trying to be on top.

The names may have changed and the area of competition may have evolved but the game remains the same.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The FIFA World Cup

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When it comes to sports there is nothing like competing for your country at an elite level. Every athlete in any sport you can name strives to wear a uniform with their country’s flag sewn on it. My favorite quadrennial national competition is about to start this week, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. For the next month the greatest football (soccer) playing nations on earth will compete to be named the World Champion. This is a magical moment as whole countries come to a stop when their national team is playing. As someone who has had the pleasure of attending the World Cup in 1986 and 1994 I have seen the emotion played out live. I also have treasured memories of traveling in a country on the day they are competing and sharing the experience with those countrymen.

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Manno Sanon agains Italy in the 1974 World Cup

My first experience of this kind was being in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti in June of 1974 at a crowded dockside bar as Haiti took on the mighty Italian team. At the end of the first half the score stood at 0-0. Then right at the beginning of the second half Manno Sanon scored the first goal against the Italians in 19 World Cup games. The bar exploded, people danced on the dock, and boats blew their horns. Then the tension really set in as everyone hoped against hope that Haiti could hold on for a famous victory. Six minutes later the score was tied at one and the Italians would add two more before the end of the game. This was the moment I fell in love with the World Cup as a sporting event.

I’ve been in an Italian-American club when Paolo Rossi scored three goals to lead Italy to a 3-2 victory over Brazil while grown men wept with emotion. In every city I’ve lived in the Brazilian community would have an impromptu car honking parade on Main Street after each victory. The World Cup captivates the entire world and it was why I wanted to experience it firsthand.

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In 1986 I spent the month of June crisscrossing central Mexico going from site to site to see games. The US had not qualified and I was this oddity, an American who knew something about the game. As a result I was adopted by one group of fans or another. The Brazilians welcomed me on to their conga drum line against Spain. The Spaniards taught me the cheers of their team a week later when they played Northern Ireland. Spending thirty days immersed in the madness made me long for the opportunity to be able to root for the US team. Eight years later it would happen.

In 1994 the World Cup came to the US. At the time I lived in Connecticut and was positioned within easy drives of three venues in Boston, New York, and Washington. I bought two tickets to as many matches as I could and I took a friend with me to every game. This time I had company as we drank Guinness with the Irish fans in NYC. Helped Spanish fans carry a coffin with Italy written on it into the stadium for their quarterfinal. I was introduced to salt licorice in the parking lot prior to a Norway match. I really enjoyed watching my friends become exposed to the fervor of the World Cup firsthand.

This year I will once again be highly distracted by the events taking place in Brazil. The US team has been drawn in to a very difficult group but like every fan I live in hope that the American lads will pull off a surprise or two. If you need to find me for the next month I’ll be at the bar watching with my new friends sharing in a world-wide experience.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette

I think those who know me know if I could my life would be violet tinted and scented. Purple is my favorite color and I have written extensively on my love of all fragrant products violet. There are days from my shower through to the clothes I am wearing where violet is the word for the day. There is one violet product I knew about but which had been extremely difficult to find until the last few years. It isn’t a fragrance or a piece of clothing it is a unique liqueur called Crème de Violette.

The resurgence of Prohibition Craft Cocktails has also resurrected some of the ingredients that went into those classic cocktails. Crème de Violette was a key ingredient to many of those libations. The source of Crème de Violette back then, as now, was the Austrian firm of Rothman & Winter. The care that goes into making it starts with harvesting two types of violets Queen Charlotte and March Violets and macerating them in a grape brandy called “Weinbrand” and then adding cane sugar to sweeten it. This produces deeply purple liqueur that adds a unique color to any drink it is added to. It also adds a wonderful scent of violet to whatever it is added to. Crème de Violette is not limited to using in cocktails if you want to add a hint of violet to cupcakes or macarons adding a few tablespoons will add an exotic twist to the most vanilla of recipes. I know of one baker who uses it in her violet macarons and garnishes it with candied violets.

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The Aviation cocktail

For me I use it in the things I drink and here are a few suggestions if you want to add a bit of violet to your drinks. One of my favorite uses is to take one tablespoon of Crème de Violette and swirl it into a glass of lemonade and then take a teaspoon and carefully float it on top for Violet Lemonade, this is the perfect drink for me when I am wearing Tom Ford Violet Blonde. For those of you who like Kir Royales or Champagne Cocktails replace the Chambord/Kir or Brandy, respectively, with the Crème de Violette. You will get a vibrantly colored version as the sparkling wine seems to make it feel like liquid neon. The same goes for a classic martini if you, again, take a teaspoon and float it on top you have a Violet Aromatini. My companion scent for these is Atelier Cologne Sous le Toit de Paris. My favorite use of Crème de Violette is in the classic cocktail The Aviation, whose recipe is below:

1 ½ oz. Dry Gin

½ oz Crème de Violette

½ oz. Maraschino liqueur

½ oz. fresh lemon juice

Take all the ingredients and mix them over ice. Shake, strain and serve in a martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist or a maraschino cherry.

You should end up with a lavender tinted concoction which looks, and smells, as good as it tastes. This particular cocktail has turned many people who told me they don’t like gin into gin drinkers. Depending on your taste there are two variations on The Aviation. In The Blue Moon the Maraschino liqueur is removed to make a tarter version. In The Moonlight Cointreau replaces the Maraschino liqueuer and lime juice replaces lemon juice. All of them are delicious. What do I wear when serving these drinks? Comme des Garcons + Stephen Jones, of course.

If you also like your world violet tinted go pick up a bottle of Rothamn & Winter Crème de Violette and see how you can add a little more violet to your life.

Disclosure: This is based on a bottle of Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: X-Men: Days of Future Past

There is probably nothing more disappointing than to see something you are emotionally attached to on the printed page get poorly translated to a visual medium. As a long time comic book reader and lover I would always enter the theatre hoping for the best but often left wanting more as the final credits rolled. It wasn’t until July of 2000 that I finally got an adaptation of a beloved comic book that left me grinning with pleasure at the end.

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X-Men, as a comic series was the #1 selling comic book in the world at the time of release in 2000. Expectations couldn’t have been higher. One of the reasons for those heightened expectations was the director, Bryan Singer, was a fellow geek. He could cite splash page and panel with the most die-hard of fans. The casting looked good and so as the lights went down I took a deep breath of anticipation.104 minutes later I finally believed that my comics could turn into movies. Not only did this show the potential but X-Men would launch the success of what would become Marvel Studios and over the ensuing fourteen years it has followed the very successful formula of finding directors who love and revere the comic books they are making the movies of. In the last eight weeks of 2014 we have seen three of the children of that first X-Men movie be released as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and in what seems a neat bit of symmetry X-Men: Days of Future Past.

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Despite the success of all that has come before the comic story, of the same name, on which Days of Future Past is based upon is one of my very favorite stories from the X-Men. Over the two issues, The Uncanny X-Men #141-142, it spread out over I remember the four week wait for the conclusion to seem like it took forever. I was once again filled with apprehension at whether they could tell this particular story on screen. Bryan Singer was back in the director’s chair and not only did they have the cast from the original X-Men film they had a wonderful cast of younger versions who were created by director Matthew Vaughn in 2011’s X-Men: First Class. There was talent everywhere and so once again I sat in the theatre hoping for the best.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is about the X-Men in 2023 living in a world where mutants are rounded up into concentration camps and not only mutants anyone who has the genetic potential to give birth to a mutant. The remaining X-Men have been on the run but they know this can’t keep up indefinitely and so they are able to send the consciousness of one of their members back to 1973 to try and change the key event which led to this dystopian future. As the X-Men in 2023 protect the time traveler in a last stand, the character who has traveled back to 1973 has to convince those he interacts with to help him change the future and avoid the creation of the mutant hunting robots known as Sentinels.

One of the hallmarks of the X-Men in both comic and cinematic form is you can substitute mutant for any segment of people deemed as outcasts or less worthy. It has allowed the storytellers to wrap social commentary within a superhero uniform and make broad points about racism and homophobia. All of this while making a fine bit of summer action entertainment.

When the lights came up, as I had done fourteen years earlier, I was filled with happiness at the movie adaptation of a comic I was so fond of. Mr. Singer had, again, pulled off the difficult feat of not only meeting but exceeding my expectations. As I reflected on how it was the original X-Men movie which started this Golden Age of Marvel superhero movies it seemed fitting that Mr. Singer would be the one to keep the flame burning bright for, hopefully, another fourteen years.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: BBQ

All great food has an olfactory element to it, to be sure. For me the type of food which carries the greatest fragrant punch is BBQ. When you think about it using a dry rub and smoking the meat is akin to perfuming it and just as there are different styles of perfume there are different styles of BBQ.

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Shorty's Bar-B-Q in S. Miami, FL

I started my life in, and have recently returned to, the southeast part of the US and the BBQ I grew up on is most often referred to as “Carolina BBQ”. One of my favorite restaurants as a child was Shorty’s where I would valiantly try and put away a basket of ribs slathered in the characteristic vinegar-based tangy bbq sauce. I always remember breathing in deeply when the ribs were delivered to the table to smell the smoke and the spices cooked into the meat. Carolina BBQ is almost always pork based and besides the ribs, pulled pork is the other specialty of the region.

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Mesquite Charcoal

Texas BBQ is beef based and it is the brisket which is the cut of choice. There are beef ribs but it is the meatier brisket which makes Texas BBQ special. I always think of Texas BBQ as sauce and smoke, but it’s mostly the smoke. They pioneered the use of mesquite wood chips as part of the smoking process to add an extra layer of flavor. This has expanded to all kind of exotic hardwoods all adding a unique flavor to the meat. The 2014 World Championship Barbecue Cooking Championship is happening this weekend in Memphis, TN and I always look to see what woods the winners are using. Besides the stand-bys of hickory, oak, and mesquite; I’ve seen applewood, maple, mulberry, and my favorite, whiskey barrel. I am waiting for someone to take a shot with oud some year.

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Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce

Texas BBQ is sauce and smoke, Kansas City BBQ is all about the sauce. The base of it is ketchup and molasses but after that the variations are endless. This is the sauce the majority of people identify as BBQ sauce and what you find on your supermarket shelf. I like to add chipotle and a secret ingredient a friend told me about, tamarind paste. This gives my BBQ sauce a bit of citrusy top note over the sweet and spicy.

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Racks of Ribs with Dry Rub on them

I may have grown up on Carolina BBQ but my favorite version is Memphis BBQ. That is mainly because through my love of perfume I have come to love spices, too. We are fortunate to have an outpost of Penzey’s Spices near where we live. Every visit there is as enjoyable as a visit to a perfume counter, for me. I spend time going through the ingredients looking for new things to cook with. By using a dry rub for Memphis BBQ you trim the fat off your rack of ribs and then rub in your spice mixture. The composition of the best dry rubs are as closely guarded as the formula of Coca-Cola. The final step after the meat has aged a few hours with the dry rub is to cook it in a smoker and then serve it off the grill right away.

I thought I would share my recipe for my dry rub with y’all if you are feeling adventurous:

Colognoisseur Coca-Cola Coffee Dry Rub

1 tablespoon ground coffee

1 tablespoon coca-cola

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika

2 teaspoons chipotle chile powder

1 teaspoon celery seed

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl it will have a slightly sticky quality due to the coca-cola and brown sugar. To a trimmed full rack of ribs rub it all over and coat both sides of the rack. Once you are done wrap it in plastic wrap and let it sit for four hours at room temperature. Then take them out and either grill them or bake them in the oven.

It shouldn’t surprise you that after I finish BBQ’ing I often look longingly at the spicy section of the perfume vault. Where I can add my own fragrant “sauce” to myself.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Arsenal Football Club

This morning I will be sitting down in front of the television set to watch the final match of the 2013-14 season of Arsenal Football Club. I realized this will be the 20th season I have been following the club. I started following Arsenal back in 1994 after the World Cup had come to the United States that summer. Living on the East Coast of the US I was traveling from Washington DC to Boston, Massachusetts to see as many games as I could. Besides rooting for the home team US I was relishing the opportunity to see football played at the highest level. When I attended the match of Netherlands v. Saudi Arabia I watched one of the great national teams of that time. My favorite player on the Netherlands after viewing the team was their striker Dennis Bergkamp. After the World Cup was over I wanted to pick a favorite team to start to support and when I found out Mr. Bergkamp was the striker for Arsenal, a team was found.

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Arsenal’s nickname is The Gunners and those of us who support the team are referred to as Gooners. Over the twenty years I’ve walked around with a jersey on or my scarf in the winter I am frequently greeted with a hearty “Oi Gooner!” accompanied by a wink or a smile. It happens no matter where in the world I have been and it always makes me feel part of a vast worldwide family. I think that is part of the enduring appeal for me being part of this tribe of Gooners who all spend August through May of every year aspiring for our lads to carry the day.

From 1997 through 2005 Arsenal won the Premiership title three times and the FA Cup five times. The last title in 2003-04 was memorable as the team went through an entire 38 match season without losing which gave that team the nickname of “The Invincibles”. Since the last FA Cup victory in 2005 Arsenal has not lifted another trophy. The current season held out the possibility of glory as Arsenal was in first place for more time than any other team but as the season drew to a close injuries had caught up to them and they faded from the top of the table. As consolation for that disappointment they will be playing next weekend in the final of the FA Cup against Hull City and the opportunity for that trophy is exciting to break the drought for silverware.

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Me in my Arsenal jersey with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz on my shoulders

I visited London in December of 2005 during the last season at the stadium in Highbury and attended three games. All three games were memorable for me. In the first game against Birmingham I took my sports hating wife and shockingly she fell in love with the game and the atmosphere. She will be sitting next to me this morning when we watch our team together. Waiting for a colleague who worked in London to meet me for the second game a camera crew asked to interview me and I think they expected to capture the “golly gee whiz isn’t this soccer stuff neat”. What they got was a complete explanation of the defensive back four and the concern that there were too many injuries. I knew I had made an impression when the reporter re-filmed his intro. After the third game I ended up laughing with the fans in the Clock End and one of them said “I never expected to hear intelligent football talk with an American accent” which made me beam from ear to ear. Even though I wasn’t born to it my fellow Gooners had given me the seal of approval.

I will be rooting for all my lads in the upcoming World Cup and hope they all are big stars for their national teams; but already I am hopeful for next August and the new season when once again with high hopes I will join Gooners all over the world in cheering on the side.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Apple iPhone 5s TV Commercial “Powerful”

In the day of the DVR we rarely have to watch a commercial, unless we want to. It takes a special bit of magic to get me to pay attention to that which I have become so accustomed to tuning out or fast forwarding through. Every now and then there is an advertisement which makes me look up, pay attention, and keep my finger off the double arrow to the right key on the remote. That it comes from Apple should be no surprise.

Apple has been making little attention getters for 30 years ever since the Ridley Scott directed commercial named “1984” debuted during the Super Bowl in January of 1984. As the iPod rose to prominence the songs chosen to go along with the day-glo silhouette graphics became instant hit makers for artists like Jet, The Fratellis, and Feist to name a few. Once you were in one of those commercials your rise on the charts was nearly assured. As iPad has become more prevalent there have been little tone poems of all the things you can do with it and the apps that run on it. For the most recent iPhone 5s commercial all of these are combined into one very memorable commercial which is named “Powerful”

The commercial begins with a few different musicians tuning up and getting ready to play all with an iPhone running an app in frame. After skipping around the bass player begins a familiar bass line and the rest of the musicians we see combine to start playing a version of The Pixies 1988 single “Gigantic” off the album Surfer Rosa. From there we see video gamers playing on their phone but projected gigantically. A father filming his son acting like Godzilla to his city of building blocks. A girl launching a fleet of model rockets and we end with a teacher showing a star map to her students and finishing with a graphic that says, “You’re more powerful than you think.”

This commercial succeeds for me on multiple levels. First it depicts the versatility of the iPhone as these devices we carry around in our pockets are able to do powerful things. The music chosen is familiar but not too familiar. Gigantic was never a chart hit failing to crack the top 40 at any time during its release. This is another thing that is interesting about this song choice. When I was listening to music at that time if The Pixies came on I was probably asked to change the channel away from that “noise”. Now in nostalgic hindsight The Pixies join The Ramones and Iggy Pop as musical acts that all of a sudden have the power to sell things thirty, or forty, years after they were making music. I know most of my contemporaries didn’t listen to any of these acts all of which were on many of my mix tapes so why this nostalgia sells things is fascinating to me. Finally as with the original “1984” ad “Powerful” has a great visual sense to itself from the musicians at the beginning to the people doing “big, big” things in the second half it forms an endearing whole. Really TV commercials just don’t get much better than this.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Candy Crush Saga

I have been a gamer all of my life. From playing Dungeons and Dragons for an entire weekend in the 70’s. Live Action Role Playing with boffer swords and my Wizard’s cloak in the 80’s. Magic:The Gathering throughout the 90’s. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games in the Naughts. It is funny how technology has transformed my gaming experience. These days most of my gaming is done on my smartphone. My current favorite, which I’ve been playing for 7 months, is the massive success in the gaming industry called Candy Crush Saga.

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Candy Crush Saga is what is called a “Match-3” puzzle game. When you match three, or more, pieces of the same shape or color they are removed from the board and others drop into place to replace the matched shapes. In Candy Crush you are matching candies. In the original versions of Match-3 games like Bejeweled it was an 8X8 grid which never changed. One of the ingenious wrinkles added in Candy Crush is the puzzle aspect and the different shaped grids. Each level has a specific goal for you to reach, score a certain amount of points in a time limit or alternatively within a certain amount of moves. The tasks get more challenging as you move higher in levels and the game offers you greater challenges by adding new impediments. It makes for a fun gaming experience that can be played while waiting in line at the grocery store or for longer sessions at your leisure.

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Level 285

Candy Crush Saga has been one of the biggest success in what is called mobile gaming. I know when I ride the bus to work I notice a lot of my fellow riders playing and based on the number of Facebook friends I have playing it has penetrated every age group I know. One of my favorite conversations at Esxence was a Candy Crush strategy session with a very famous perfumer who is also one of my Facebook friends. The game is casual but addicting. I am currently on level 547 out of 575 available.

I like it because of the portability of it. By having it on my smartphone whenever I feel like playing it is there for me. Each single game takes a minute or so and over the course of a day I can play a dozen games just in the time I am waiting for something. It has made plane flights and train rides go by in a flash. It is just the right amount of challenge without the time commitment other forms of gaming require.

It is still amazing to me that what used to take a whole weekend at a friend’s house 40 years ago, for a D&D module, has evolved to minute size bites of the same fun available in my pocket at a moment’s notice. There are many wonderful technological advancements much more important but for my personal joy none are much bigger.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: HBO’s Game of Thrones

The book is better than the movie is a truism most of us subscribe to. The corollary to that is the more complicated the book the more disappointing the movie is. When it comes to getting epic fantasy onto the screen it was very much a graveyard of good intentions and failed technologies for many years. Then Peter Jackson and his team were able to amazingly put a version of JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” on the screen and by the time they finished they were lauded with awards, kudos, and not a whole lot of “The book was better than the movie” commentary. Mr. Jackson understood what was intrinsically necessary to tell the story and stripped away the fun, but extraneous, side journeys leaving the main threads of the tale intact. After this success I imagine Hollywood was busy optioning every epic fantasy series on the bookshelf.

If there is a modern successor to Tolkien’s masterwork in the genre it would be George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Through five complete volumes with two left to come Mr. Martin has created a world as texturally complex as Middle-Earth but his characters are less easily segregated into “good guys” and “bad guys”. This series is about the way power, or lack of it, motivates people to the deeds they do on the page. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a character and through that narration the story progresses. Because of these storytelling conventions and a sprawling story with characters spread everywhere I would have expected this series to be among the last Hollywood would take a stab at.

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The people at HBO had a different idea and proposed that instead of turning it into a movie let’s turn it into a television series. Once that decision was made the showrunners and creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss undertook the casting and in March of 2011 the first episode of Game of Thrones appeared. One of the key things Mr. Benioff and Weiss did was to bring Mr. Martin on board. He has written one episode in each of the four seasons, and they have been the pivotal episodes in many of those seasons. Having the author of the source material writing material for the visual adaptation shows the commitment to getting this right.

Getting it right is exactly what Game of Thrones has done. As a reader of the books there was so much they could have done wrong but up to this point they have preserved every critical beat from the books and translated them to the television screen. The acting is superb from actors well known like Peter Dinklage, Sean Bean, and Lena Headley to newcomers Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams, and Natalie Dormer. They inhabit these characters so fully that they convincingly deliver lines of dialogue that when said out loud could sound arch but in these actors’ reading sounds genuine.

The production values are sumptuous as all of the world of Game of Thrones comes to life and the crew films in Iceland, Ireland, Malta, Morocco, and Croatia. The locations used bring the fictional land of Westeros to life and the acting and words give it power.

If you haven’t tried this and enjoy these kind of stories you need to binge watch the first three 10-episode seasons. Season 4 has just started showing on HBO in the US. One caveat watch the series without reading the books first. Mr. Martin has made a world where anything can happen and one of the great joys of Game of Thrones is the number of “OMG did they just do that?” moments. There is a lot of television which relies on that but Game of Thrones might be the best at making those moments feel earned and truthful. I do know that there are a lot of epic fantasy properties in less adept hands who probably wish very fervently that this team had found their property first. I am very glad they didn’t and Game of Thrones will stand as a milestone in turning the page into visual where the visual is as good as the book.

Mark Behnke