Friday, July 1, 2022

Movie Review: RRR (2022)

RRR (2022) directed by S. S. Rajamouli

In the early 1900s, British military leader Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his wife (Alison Doody) take a young girl from an isolated village. They basically want the girl as a house pet, to sing and paint the wife's hands with elaborate pictures. The villagers can't put up a fight but Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) promises to bring the child back from Delhi. He goes to the big city, fighting the British and a bunch of jungle creatures on his way. Once there, Bheem tries to come up with a scheme to bust the girl out of the leader's fortified headquarters. At this point, he's a wanted man because of his adventures in the jungle and because the British know he's coming for the girl.

Maybe a decade earlier in another part of India, Rama Raju (Ram Charan) sees his village attacked and loses many friends and family. As an adult, he vows to arm everyone who will fight against the English. He leaves a girlfriend (Alia Bhatt) in the village as he goes to Delhi where he begins a career in the English army, trying to rise through the ranks until he gets access to what he needs. He's an amazing officer though is often passed over for promotion because he's Indian. He has the chance to get a big promotion if he can bring in Bheem.

As luck would have it, they are both in the area and are traveling incognito (Rama is trying to infiltrate the rebels) when a kid is in peril. They work together to save the child in an amazing, over-the-top sequence. There's already been plenty of over-the-top scenes (Rajamouli is the guy who directed Baahubhali) so it does not seem out of place. The guys who should be enemies become friends, creating a lot of tension in the story. In the bigger picture, they should be friends because they both want to get out from under the heel of the British, who are about as dastardly as you can get in this film, except for the one lady who is the love interest for Bheem. Rama and Bheem flip from being brothers to being enemies a few times.

The movie is chock full of amazing, unbelievable actions sequences that are so well filmed and put together that I went with the implausibility. The scenes are so much fun. As an Indian film, plenty of dance sequences and songs are added. The film ends with a big song and dance number that pays tribute to the Indian revolutionaries who got the British out in the early 1900s. The film is joyous and delightful. There are some gruesome bits of torture and injury, so the film is not for the pre-teen crowd. If you are old enough, this is a very entertaining film.

Recommended.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Book Review: The Life We're Looking For by Andy Crouch

The Life We're Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World by Andy Crouch

Modern conveniences have only gotten more and more convenient. We can communicate with almost anyone on the planet, and not just in text or on the phone but with live video. We can order food, drink, books, clothes, entertainment, gadgets, and anything else at the click of a button, often with the item arriving in a matter of hours, let alone days or weeks. The world is at our fingertips. 

And yet, there is a crisis of genuine contact between people. Text messages are notorious for being misinterpreted; even videos don't quite give us the same experience that we have when we meet in person. Convenience has come at a cost. Do you even make eye contact at checkout counters? Do you even see the same people at the same store? Do you even see them as people? Of course, the opposite is distressingly true--do others sees you as a person? A person is more than the spending power of their credit card or the entertainment value of their presence. What we learn in modern interactions is not knowing a person as a person. 

Andy Crouch looks at this dehumanizing quality of modern life and convincingly documents the ways that life has become less personal. Technology can do amazing things and can be helpful in certain ways, but the dominate tone is a false promise of fulfillment, fulfilling only basic needs and wants, not looking to deeper and more specifically human needs. Crouch provides ideas for how to counteract the numbing and isolating effects of our technologically-dominated world. 

He builds on ideas started two thousand years ago, when the Roman Empire was at its height of world domination. A new movement started, in homes and around tables, where everyone had equal dignity: the scholars, the government officials, the scribes, the slaves, the females. Christianity provided a sea change in human culture with its emphasis on human dignity and care for even the most marginalized and supposedly worthless members of society. While it seems that such a scheme is doomed to failure, look where the Roman empire is today (in history books and museums) and where Christians are (all over the world, in hospitals and hospices, in food banks and soup kitchens). Crouch recommends we build households, places where people of different stages and stations in life gather and truly live together. Some households only have family, but often people who are not blood relations live in common and still develop close bonds and give mutual support. These are communities like the early Christian communities, where people would gather to pray and eat and serve each other. Such a lifestyle is unglamorous and won't wind up in history books or museums, but it will last for generations to come and will make the world a better place.

This book is inspirational without being ham-fistedly religious. While referencing Christianity, Crouch does not argue that we depend on grace or supernatural interventions in order to heal the wounds in modern society. He is not telling anyone to go to church or to pray to God (he does not write about that). Crouch keeps it on a humanist level, even while acknowledging that the problems of hedonistic, materialistic culture are the results of serving Mammon, which Jesus claims in Matthew 6:24 is what you are serving if you aren't serving God. People need to make priorities and some priorities are better than others.

Highly recommended, and it's a quick read too!

SAMPLE QUOTE: "The privacy we cherish is constantly in danger of curdling into isolation." [p. 160]

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Laurel Oxbow

While it is claimed there are no natural lakes in Maryland, the body of water at the Oxbow Lake Nature Preserve in Laurel, Maryland, might beg to differ. 

One entrance to the park is on Oxbow Place. The entrance has a nice path and an interpretive sign that explains the history of the area dating back thousands of years. The natives traveled on the Little Patuxtent River (the nearby river from which the oxbow formed) and used the river for fishing. The surrounding area provided wood and stone as resources to those early natives.

Path into the park

The river, like all rivers, has a tendency to meander, sometimes leaving large curves like the letter U. Either through a flood or some other occurrence, these bends may get cut off when a channel connects the shorter, non-bent distance. Imagine a line drawn across the top of the U, leaving the lower part of the letter as a potential body of water. In this case, water drains into the Laurel Oxbow from the higher ground around it. That runoff water is stopped by a beaver dam at one end, creating some marshy land and a lake.

The Laurel Oxbow

When I visited, the area had torrential downpours the night before, so the water level was high. A measuring stick is visible along the trail and typically shows the water level around three feet. My picture shows it almost at six feet!

The depth measure

A close up!

As I walked the trail, there was a lot of amazing flora and fauna. I spotted a frog along the trail in the picture below. Can you spot him?

Where's the frog?

Close up to show the actual frog

I was drawn to the location by a geocache, In the Laurel Oxbow, which required me to take a picture at a certain point.

Proof of caching

The trail also showed evidence of beaver activity, which is only natural considering the dam.

The tree usually has bark all the way to the bottom, right?

I was a bit late to see the mountain laurel blossoms. Some were still on the trees but not in their full glory. They typically bloom in late May and I was there in early June.

Flowers everywhere!

Soil erosion left a lot of tree roots exposed along the trail. Here is a dramatic spot.

Could be creepy in the right circumstances

The trail was a lot of fun to walk along. I may drag the kids out later to see it. I am curious what it looks like with a normal level of water!

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Book Review: Crimson Lotus by J. Arcudi et al.

Crimson Lotus story by John Arcudi, art by Mindy Lee, Colors by Michelle Madsen, and letters by Clem Robins

Crimson Lotus is a Lobster Johnson villain (so before Hellboy's time). Her story begins during the Russo-Japanese War when an ancient artifact (pre-historic, maybe even pre-earth) is found in Manchuria. Her family suffers greatly. Thirty years later, a pair of Japanese spies in occupied China search for the artifact. Crimson Lotus, along with her army of little, creepy monkeys, is also searching for the artifact. Magic and monkeys are a bad combination, especially with the Lotus bent on revenge!

The story moves along at a good pace after the various elements are put together (the opening is fairly convoluted). The action is fun though as an origin story it does not have a lot going for it. Crimson Lotus gets her origin in the first ten or fifteen pages then it's just a fun supernatural spy action story where the focus is on the spies, not on Crimson Lotus. I enjoyed reading this but probably won't read it again.

Mildly recommended.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Ice Cream Summer Part II

Part of an on-going series as we make home-made ice cream all summer long!

The first batch of ice cream on our second week was Whoppers ice cream. It's vanilla with the malted and chocolate-coated candy thrown in. The recipe in the book recommends crushing candy before putting it in, so I used our little food processor to turn the Whoppers into chunky powder. The Chop setting did the job I wanted--mostly powdered with some chunks that were no bigger than half a Whopper. I was not sure of a good method to crush Whoppers by hand (maybe in a zip-lock baggie and some sort of mallet?). The food processor was fast and easy to clean.

Best ingredient ever?

Inconveniently Whopper-shaped Whoppers

Cut down to size!

The ice cream itself came out well. I love Whoppers, so the flavor can't go wrong. For the next time, I might try malted milk powder and a sea salt chocolate bar that's been food-processed, maybe some caramel sauce too if I feel ambitious or adventurous. Did I say I have a sweet tooth? I can call it "Whoppers#notreallyWhoppers."

Finished product

The next experiment was making basic chocolate ice cream from the machine's recipe book. The ingredients are still simple but the process is a little more involved.

Not quite matching chocolate bars

I had to heat the milk till just bubbling. While that was heating up, I food-processed the chocolate bars (which I notice were only 3.5 ounces each, so they did not make the 8 ounce total for chocolate) with the sugar to get it mostly powdery.

A bit of the bubbly

Chocolate bars and sugar take up most of the space

Once the milk was hot enough, I mixed it into the food processor with the chocolate and sugar and did some more processing. Our food process turns out to be slightly too small for the job, we lost one or two tablespoons of milk chocolate due to overflow as the machine mixed. The chocolate/milk/sugar then went into a bigger bowl to cool down. Once it was back to room temperature, the heavy cream and vanilla went in and the whole bowl went to the fridge for thirty minutes of cooldown.

Doesn't look overloaded when it isn't mixing

Cool swirls in the midst of mixing

The last step was pouring the mixture into the machine and giving it the usual thirty minutes of processing. The results came out really well. The chocolate flavor wasn't too weak. I guess the name-brand chocolate's higher quality compensated for its lower quantity. Using the sea salt bar added a little extra salt which probably had an impact as well.

The kids asked for a slushie, which is something we can create in the ice cream maker. My daughter whipped up some homemade lemonade--lemon juice, water, and sugar. The machine's slushie instructions insisted that any juice, soda, or other beverage not be sugar free or else the results would be bad. The kids were happy with the results.

Adding lemon

Adding sugar

Adding to the machine

Slushie!

My daughter decided to make chocolate chip cookie dough as a snack for herself (she makes it without eggs, so it's okay). She made some extra for cookie dough ice cream. 

Five simple ingredients!

A California of Cookie Chunks

Unfortunately, the machine's freezer bowl did not get cold enough after the slushie experiment, resulting in liquidy ice cream with the chunks on the bottom. Curse you, gravity!

A smooth top

Nobody wants a chunky bottom

My wife remembered some advice from a cookbook about adding two tablespoons of alcohol and mixing every thirty minutes or so to remedy the situation. We dutifully added some vodka (the least flavorful option) and set a thirty minute timer. We repeated the process four or five times until the ice cream firmed up.

Chillin'

The results were popular in our house, though I think the cookie dough wasn't as satisfying as the stuff I've had in store-bought ice creams. Maybe it needs the eggs or some other secret ingredient? The chunks were suspended in the vanilla ice cream, so the alcohol trick worked. It was a bit tedious to keep restirring, though.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Movie Review: The Cat and the Canary (1927)

The Cat and the Canary (1927) directed by Paul Leni

Cyrus West owned a great mansion on the Hudson River and had a substantial estate to bequeath on his relatives. Unfortunately, most of them swarmed on him like cats on a canary so he left his will to be opened twenty years after his death. Five cousins and an aunt come on a dark night when the family lawyer will finally read the will. The mansion has the standard-issue spooky housekeeper (Martha Mattox) who lets people in and seems to know more than she's letting on. If things weren't stressful enough, someone has tampered with the documents and a lunatic has escaped from a nearby asylum and may be on the grounds or even in the house. The mansion has a lot of cobwebs and creepy hands reaching out from secret panels and doors.

As an "old dark house" thriller (quite possibly the first film version--this is from the silent era), the movie works well. The cast has plenty of people to suspect, a fine heroine (Laura La Plante), and a bumbling comic relief guy (Creighton Hale). The balance of scares and laughs is just right and the actors give good performances. The filmmakers managed to put a lot of cat and canary references in throughout.

Recommended.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Book Review: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

In an attempt to make the best out of a team with an abysmally low budget for baseball players, Billy Beane looked for a new way to assess the talent of players hired by the Oakland Athletics. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he worked with Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate with no professional baseball experience. What DePodesta did have was a computer and lots of data. He did analysis on player performance, though he looked for statistics that were not considered most important in the "received wisdom" of baseball. He looked for players who were undervalued, either because of their appearance or their unorthodox play style. The real thing DePodesta looked for was results, even if a player had some other flaws that made them look undesirable to regular scouts. Then Billy used his ability as a wheeler-dealer to get inexpensive players who would improve the A's performance over the year. Once a player did work out and become a hotter commodity in the baseball market, Billy would trade him for another underrated talent. 

The book focuses mostly on Billy because he is a fascinating character. He started out as a baseball player with a lot of promise. His biggest enemy was himself--his lack of confidence would kick in as soon as something went wrong; his temper often got the better of him. He did not have much of a career as a player. He had a very unorthodox career as a general manager. He didn't watch the games because he would lose his objectivity. He'd get angry when things didn't go well and he'd take it out on the office furniture (so maybe he hadn't changed from his playing days). He did have confidence in the analytics and in his ability to make trades and choose players to draft. He became so good that other managers would get nervous as soon as he called with a new deal for a nobody.

The book also looks at other people, including eccentric players like Chad Bradford, a pitcher with a great record but an unorthodox throw and a desire to be anonymous, or Scott Hatteberg, a catcher who lost his ability to throw but was an ace hitter and became a solid first baseman. The book also looks at Bill James, who wrote a series of self-published (and eventually regularly published) books in the 1970s and 1980s gathering baseball statistics and commenting on what they meant for the game. He looked at statistics in unorthodox but very persuasive ways. James was the origin of Beane's and DePodesta's system. The characters are interesting and Lewis underlines their dramatic qualities.

The book ends on something of a tragic and cryptic note. Even though their statistical analysis had the Oakland A's performing well during the season, they never got anywhere when they made it to the playoffs. The author passes it off as a discrepancy between a statistically predictable 160-game season and a statistically unpredictable (because there isn't enough data) five-game series to make it to the next round of the playoffs. "Science will get you to the playoffs but luck is too much of a factor once you're there" is the implication. The numbers game doesn't work without enough numbers. This struck me as a cop-out. If you can figure out a science of the season, you can figure out a science of the post-season. Maybe a different shift in thinking is needed, one not so dependent on numbers, one that looks at hard to quantify factors like human psychology and the heightened environment of playoff season.

Slightly recommended--it is a fascinating read but not fully satisfying.