Thursday, May 26, 2016

Book Review: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun written by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien

Old Norse and Germanic tales were a huge influence on J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. He was a university professor specializing in philology, studying ancient languages and texts. Among the works he studied were the old Norse and Icelandic poems (called Edda) along with the later prose work Volsunga Saga. He re-wrote the poems concerning the hero Sigurd, who slays the dragon Fafnir, takes his horde of gold, frees the Valkerie Brynhild, and winds up at the court of the Niflungs (known in German as the Nibelungs). His life there proves to be his undoing as the princes's mother uses witchcraft to mix up their fates, resulting in sorrow and death for pretty much everybody. Tolkien called this poem "The New Lay of the Volsungs," the Volsungs being Sigurd's family. He imitates the terse and alliterative style of the Edda poems to great effect:
'Men sing of serpents
ceaseless guarding
gold and silver
but fell Fafnir
folk all name him
of dragons direst,
dreaming evil.' [p. 101]
Tolkien also wrote "The Lay of Gudrun," about Gudrun, the daughter of the Niflungs who is wedded to Sigurd, even though he pledged his troth to Brynhild. A tale of betrayal and revenge spins out, resulting in the overthrow of the Niflungs by a foreign king.

This book contains the texts of both poems along with a general introduction on the style of the writing. The introduction is mostly by Tolkien's son Christopher but based on notes from Tolkien's lectures. Christopher also provides commentary and footnotes at the end of each poem. Appendices have more background information on the poems.

The poems themselves are the highlight of the book. They communicate the story with vivid style. The introduction is well worth reading for background on the poems, their writing, and their structure. I was able to appreciate the Lays much more. The commentaries are also helpful, though probably not as necessary for a second reading. Seeing elements that show up in Tolkien's later works (like a cursed ring, etc.) is a fun discover. Overall, the book is highly satisfying reading.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

FRES Carnival 2016--Part II

After enjoying the obstacle course and rock climbing wall, we decided to go inside, i.e. out of the sun. The FRES Carnival had plenty of indoor attractions. The games included the classic cake walk. My son played it twice but didn't win either time.

Starting the cake walk

My son comes around the corner

He was more successful at the mini-golf challenge. He had three balls to hit, trying to get at least one in the hole.

Where's the third ball?

My daughter tried it out but her skills are not fully developed yet.

Daughter trying it out

My daughter was more satisfied with with the face painting and the new glitter tattoos.

Butterfly--a face paint classic!

Getting a glitter tattoo

A happy customer

Red dart frog

The other popular indoor activity was buying (and eating) food. Since it was a carnival, my daughter decided to have some classic carnival food.

Cotton candy! (toddler wants some)

Buffalo Wild Wings mascot trying to scare high five the toddler

Back outside, my son tried the horse racing game. He didn't quite get the bouncing down right away, but he did have a lot of fun.

Breaking out of the gate

Turning around to go back!?!

We had a great time and are sure to go back next year.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

FRES Carnival 2016--Part I

The kids' school had their spring carnival in mid-May. We went a little early to set up the Cub Scout table. We got there as things were starting and just barely had the table set up in time.

The scouts table

The recruitment effort was successful--we had eight interested people give us contact information.

My son was eager to get to the fun stuff, so we headed off to buy tickets for the various games. The first thing he wanted to try was an inflatable obstacle course.

Inflatable obstacle course


My boy starts the race

Climbing in the middle of the course

At the finishing line

He ran the course four times. Three of the times I remembered to clock him. His fastest time was eighteen seconds (or, literally, eighteen Mississippis). These courses are always a favorite with him.

The other big hit was the rock climbing wall. Again, he tried it four times to see how high he could climb. His first ascent wasn't too high, but he improved as the day wore on.

Getting the harness on!

Hooking on to the wall

First ascent

Top of the first ascent

Top of the second climb

Starting the third time

Passed by another kid


Tied for height

Top performance

My daughter decided to try it as well. She didn't get as high but had a great time anyway.

Suiting up

Starting her ascent

Reaching for the star(fish)

Her top level

Repelling back down

More in the next post!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: ApocalyptiGirl by Andrew MacLean

ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times by Andrew MacLean

Aria is an opera singer and cat owner who has been living on an earth-like planet for many years. She's searching in the ruins of civilization for a special relic of amazing power. If she finds the relic, she can return home. Problem is her main searching tool, a massive walking robot, is on the blink. She has to search on foot. That's why it's taking years. Also, the natives (two different, semi-human species) are restless and hostile. Aria makes the best of the situation, even though it is a very bad situation.

The story is fairly simple, allowing the author to be more lyrical. And lyrical he is. Aria sings many passages from operas. The passages are in other languages but do have footnotes, so a diligent reader could look them up. I didn't. Other parts are more poetic than technical, especially the descriptions of the planet's history and the various events that caused the apocalyptic conditions. The narrative takes a back seat to the artistry which mostly works for this book. The ending is fairly thought-provoking, which was a very pleasant surprise.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Dice Masters: Classic Legion of Doom OP

I went to another Dice Masters tournament at my friendly local gaming store, the Family Game Store. This month featured the Classic Legion of Doom, as in the one from the old Super Friends cartoon. The Legion of Doom was the natural opposite of the Justice League. Lex Luthor was the Legion's head and seemingly every hero at the Justice League had an iconic opposite on the Legion. Batman had Scarecrow (why not Joker?), Wonder Woman had Cheetah, Green Lantern had Sinestro, Aquaman had Black Manta, etc. The tournament was a rainbow draft format using the new World's Finest DC Dicemasters set.

During the drafting, I had a hard time choosing between mostly villains or mostly Batman Family. The other major faction in the set is Team Superman which I did not get much of (those cards kept going around, so it seemed like no one was particularly interested). My final team was mostly villains, with a few Batman allies (Robin, Batgirl, and Catwoman (not a villain on the card I got)) to fill out the roster.

My team

Doomsday was a heavy hitter for fairly cheap (four energy cost) but he required another villain in the field in order to attack or block, making things difficult at certain points. In retrospect, I should have taken the basic action Villainous Pact that lets players pay an energy to make a character die a villain for that turn. Then I could have made a sidekick or one of the Batfolk into villains.

My other quality card was Two-Face, who would do double damage when blocked, but the extra damage went straight to the other player and not to the blocking character. Nobody bothered blocking him. His five cost made him harder to buy so he didn't get his second die out in any of the games I played.

I won my first game fairly quickly with just one Two-Face die coming around several times. My second game I faced a player who had the Superwoman card that costs five energy but can be purchased for only three energy if all are bolt energy. Her card also has a global ability that lets a player spend one energy of any type to turn all other energy to bolts. So my opponent bought his two Superwoman dice on his first two turns and then proceeded to pound on me. He had a lot of luck rolling her highest level and inflicting maximum damage.

In the end, I came in second for the contest, garnering me the participation prize (Black Manta special art card) and the Lex Luthor Legion of Doom card.

Second place winnings

The tournament was not as fun as previous tournaments. We were talking afterward and agreed that several of the cards were far too overpowered with no mitigating counter-cards in the draft. Without seeing an opponent's team beforehand, choosing how to counteract a Superwoman or Two-Face is impossible. I hope the just-releasing Marvel Civil War set is better!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Patapsco Female Institute, Maryland--Part II

Continuing from yesterpost about the history of the Patapsco Female Institute...

We switched roles with the other half of the class and my son tried some hands-on archeology. The archeologists explained that they typically set off squares to dig in and had a coordinate system to show where they found items. He warned the children to be careful stepping over the strings that mark off the square, because falling down the hill is not a pleasant experience!

A sample dig

A working dig

The children got their trowels and began scraping away dirt in hopes of finding interesting items buried underneath. They did find some pieces of broken pottery and some charcoal.

Demonstrating the technique

Working together

Some of the finds

One of the children asked about all the stuff they found and it came out that the archeologists had put some items back in the ground for the kids to find. A bit of a trick, but then the archeologist could talk about the various items and what they tell us about the site.

We then went over and looked at other objects that have been found and preserved during this past thirty years of exploring the site.

Showing some of the earlier finds

Examining artifacts

Some objects are found whole, such as buttons or bits of jewelry. Some are partial items, like an old toothbrush that was missing its bristles and most of its handle. Studying these items let the archeologists learn more about the people who lived here and what they did. Sometimes the objects are broken bits, often from dishes or cookware. Pottery is often reconstructed, which was our next activity. The children tried to piece back together some shattered items (the items were from Target, not from local digging).

Putting plates back together

Working hard

After this final activity, the class had a chance to sit together on the steps for a photo before heading back down the hill.

Class without the teacher

Class with the teacher

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Patapsco Female Institute, Maryland--Part I

My son is in a special class that has been studying archeology. As the unit came to an end, they had a field trip to the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City. The Institute was built in 1837 on a hill just outside of town. We parked by the courthouse and had to walk up, an activity much easier for the children than for adults.

The gate by the road

Walking up the hill

View from the front steps

The front steps

The Patapsco Female Institute was a finishing school for girls from eleven to nineteen. They studied math, music, Latin, religion, botany, and philosophy. Anywhere from 100 to 150 students per semester studied there, though enrollment declined in the late 1800s and the school was closed in 1891. It was converted into a posh hotel for several years. It also served as a hospital during World War I, a retirement home, and a theatrical venue. It still serves as an open air theater in the summers, as well as being an archeological site year round.

Our docents were young and professional. After a quick overview of the work they do, the class was split into two groups--one to tour the building while the other did some archeology. My son's group did the tour first. We started at the front of the building and discussed its Greek Revival style (popular in the mid-1800s) and its good location (the first American railroad had a stop at the bottom of the hill; the Patapsco River and several turnpikes came through the area; Baltimore is not far away). Most students at the Institute were from the South, making enrollment tricky during the American Civil War.

Learning a bit of history

Then we headed into the building. The archeologist explained that there are two types of things they found at sites--artifacts, which are man-made things often dug out of the ground; and features, which are man-made structures or objects that can't be moved, like walls or ruins. So the building is a feature on the site. When the building was stabilized, they decided not to make a new roof, leaving a nice, open-air feeling. The first area was where the entrance parlors stood. Students would meet with visiting parents in these front room. The restorers left an outline in the wood floor where the walls and fireplaces would have been.

In the front rooms

Outline of walls and fireplaces

These fireplaces were situated right about other, downstairs fireplaces that were part of the kitchen complex.

Directly below the fireplace outlines

View down into another part of the kitchens, with a main fireplace and a bread oven

Close up with bread oven on right

Another interesting feature is an added wing that contained the chapel and a mysterious room downstairs. Our guide asked us to guess what the room was used for.

Wing room with a wall in the middle?

Large rounded windows show where the chapel was

The guide had one of the children read about the chapel from a diary entry by one of the students. She described the first day the chapel was used and the various girls who were baptized by a local minister.

The guide also explained that they don't know why that extra wall was added to the downstairs room. Any guesses were welcome though no definitive answers came. We continued on through the basement.

Showing where the staircases were

Another intriguing room in the basement was a room with no entrance. The best guess is that the room was a root cellar or other storage area, probably accessed through a trap door with a ladder.

Looking down into an unused room

The guide said the room was probably a furnace room for the hotel since the round structure at the end looks like a chimney. Outside, she showed us some spikes in the walls where the hoteliers put in a deck for dining.

Two spikes to the right of the bottom of the window/doorway

The guide displayed various photos and drawing of the Institute through the years. The most interesting part to me was a tuition bill. The total of the bill for the April to August semester was $213. One item on the list was a broken pitcher, so I guess the girl had an accident or was klutzy.

We switch to archeology in the next post!