Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Grace Geocaching

We noticed a local church has four geocaches on its grounds. With some unseasonably warm weather in February, we went to find them. The caches were fun, but not as fun as the property. A big field behind the church has a playground, which was a big hit with our toddler.

Where's the toddler?

His favorite spot was the sand box, of which we didn't get any photos. My older son was happy to see a gaga ball pit.

Gaga ball pit with toddler and mommy in the distance

One of the geocaches was in the back of the field. as my older son and I headed across we discovered a scary animal.
Uhm, what's that?!?

Happily it turned out to be a fake, perhaps to scare away...someone. Not sure who...

Facing your fear

The cache was just downhill from a fun hillside slip and slide. Even with the unseasonably warm weather, it was still too cold to try it out (plus, it's not our church and we don't know the rules for the slide).
Top of the slide

Slide from below

The final cache was a fun find in some pine trees. My son found it before me which made him very happy.

Found the cache!

We discovered that we are up to 384 geocache finds--this may be the year we break into the 400s. Our toddler still isn't up to bushwhacking into remote caches, but these easier caches are good for him to come along.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Review: Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Grade school histories in America are, when it comes to the American Revolution, all about how great George Washington was and what a terrible traitor Benedict Arnold was. This book delves into the history of the two men from 1776 to 1780, following their military campaigns as generals in the Continental Army. Author Nathaniel Philbrick draws an initial contrast between the two gentlemen. Washington struggled with defeats and outmaneuvering by General Howe in New York and New Jersey; he barely kept his army together. Arnold craftily fought by the Canadian border on land and on Lake Champlain; he kept the British from streaming down the Hudson and dividing the colonies in half. Both men were temperamental and ambitious but clearly Arnold was more successful.

Both men had to deal with a very difficult opponent--the Continental Congress. In 1776, spirits were running high but the new government had little else. They had no powers to tax the states' citizens, relying on whatever money and militia they could beg from each state. Often they resorted to printing more money, which just devalued the cash. The congress was also somewhat suspicious of a standing army, worried Washington or another ambitious general might try to make a military dictatorship of the new country. Plenty of generals and state leaders were more adept (and had more time) to play the political games necessary to influence congress. Washington slowly learned to play the long game and not be rattled by the interference of civic politicians in military matters. Arnold, by contrast, became more and more frustrated with the civic government.

On the military front, Washington learned to be daring but not reckless; battles like Trenton inspired the rebels to fight on even against the bad odds of defeating the British. Thanks to battlefield injuries, Arnold wound up as military governor of Philadelphia after the city was taken back from the British in 1778. He used his position to unfair advantage in an attempt to restore some of the wealth he had spent on the war. He also wanted to woo Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia socialite with sympathies for the British. He needed the ability to support her which was hard when he was passed over for promotions and Continental cash had little value.

Arnold began to falter more, coming to the conclusion that the best thing for the colonies would be to reunite with the British Empire. Thus he schemed to surrender West Point (then a major fortification keeping the Hudson River out of British hands and keeping the country united). He might have succeeded if not for the ill-luck that befell his British conspirator, General John Andre. On the way back to New York from West Point, he was captured by Americans who found the plans for West Point while searching him for valuables. Arnold managed to find out about the capture of Andre before Washington found out/ Washington was on his way to inspect West Point. Arnold managed to escape to New York and ever living infamy.

Philbrick's descriptions of the battles and conditions of the time are detailed and fascinating. I myself know very few details of the American Revolution and was glad to learn more. He seems to think that people will find shocking the back-biting and difficulties the army, and Washington in particular, faced. Other generals wanted to be in command and the congress was often the opposite of helpful. While I didn't know about those details, I hardly find them surprising.

I was surprised at the level of admiration Philbrick has for Arnold, who was a brilliant general. Philbrick credits his betrayal with reigniting the country's passion for independence. Without Arnold as the villain, the cause could have faded away. The true enemy was the average citizen who would satisfy their own comfort rather than sacrifice for their fellow Americans. Arnold's self-serving betrayal (he was going to get a lot of money if he succeeded) was a wake-up call to the Americans. The argument is interesting but I am unsure if it was THE thing that turned the revolution around.

The book is an interesting and detailed look at the history of the American Revolution through the eyes of George Washington and even more so through those of Benedict Arnold. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: Ultimate Spider-man vs. the Sinister 6 by J. Caramanga et al.

Ultimate Spider-man vs. the Sinister 6 adapted by Joe Caramanga from the television series written by Kevin Burke, Chris "Doc" Wyatt, and Jacob Semahn

Spider-man works with his web-slinging friends Agent Venom and Iron Spidey to take down Doctor Octopus. Since they are working for S.H.I.E.L.D., they bring Doc Ock to Nick Fury's helicarrier to lock him up. Unfortunately, that was part of Doc Ock's plan--he breaks out the other prisoners and promises anyone who can kill Spider-man a slot on his newly formed Sinister 6. If that wasn't bad enough, Hydra makes  the helicarrier their own base for their own nefarious purposes.

The book is based on the Ultimate Spider-man TV show, so the art is pretty much exactly like the show. I assume the plot is too. The adventures are fairly standard, with some fun quips and guest characters (like Doctor Strange). It's probably more enjoyable for kids than for grown-ups.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Movie Review: Signs (2002)

Signs (2002) written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former preacher living with his two children and his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) on the family farm some 45 miles from Philadelphia. His loss of faith is relatively recent--his wife died in a horrible car accident six months ago and Graham's trust in God completely vanished. Crop circles appear in the corn fields overnight. He thinks it's the work of vandals but very soon the television is reporting crop circles all over the globe, as well as other evidence of alien activity. Are they about to be invaded? Is this the end of the world?

The movie is a combination of an alien invasion thriller and an existential crisis for Graham. The alien invasion is exciting and tense, even though the story is told mostly through news coverage on television. Some aliens do show up in their area. The home siege at the end is particularly well executed, going for the "less is more" style famously used by The X-Files. The film also follows in the footsteps of The Twilight Zone, adding a more substantive story underneath the sci-fi trappings. Graham's loss of faith is just that--he doesn't believe God is the good and providential Person everyone assumes He is, otherwise why would He let a senseless accident rob him of his wife? Graham has taken the cross off his wall and won't waste another minute on prayer. He explains to his brother that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who take luck as a sign of someone higher up watching out for them and those who think luck is only circumstantial. The first people have a reason for hope when an alien invasion is looming. The second people have much more reason to fear. Graham puts himself in the second camp but clearly struggles with where he really stands and where his family and friends need him to be. That answer is what the movie is ultimately about.

Shyamalan is famous for his twist endings. The twist in the invasion story is a bit unbelievable though it is crafted in support of the twist in existential crisis story. I found the ending moving if not great and do heartily recommend the movie. It's not Shyamalan's best work but it is very good, like the best of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone.

I was inspired to rewatch this because Julie and Scott discussed the film on A Good Story is Hard to Find. They give the usual excellent commentary and insights.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Moonbase (1967)

Doctor Who: The Moonbase (1967) written by Kit Pedler and directed by Morris Barry

Second Doctor Patrick Troughton tries to land the TARDIS on Mars, so naturally they show up on Earth's moon. The year is AD 2070 and the Earth's weather is run from a moon base near where the Doctor and companions land. The base has a virus or plague that is slowly incapacitating the workers (who are all scientists). Blame falls on the newcomers though the real problem turns out to be an infestation of Cybermen!

For two of the four episodes, the video has been lost. Animations were created to fill in for episodes one and three, much like for the Reign of Terror DVD. The animations don't really capture the amazing expressiveness of Troughton's face, though otherwise they match the visual style of the story well enough. The audio is the usual high-quality sound effects from the BBC. The Cybermen are a classic and enjoyable set of villains--they aren't shouty and over-the-top like others but still have plenty of menace. Seeing the female companion Polly asked to make coffee is nicely balanced with her coming up with a chemical concoction to take out the Cybermen. She's not just a pretty face who screams and passes out when the Cybermen show up (though she does do that too).

Recommended with the caveat that it's half-animated which may be a turn off for some viewers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Blue and Gold Dinner 2017

My son's Cub Scout pack had their Blue and Gold Dinner. Part of the celebration was auctioning off Father-Son cakes. The theme of the dinner was Pokemon, so we decided to combine Scouting and Pokemon on the cake. We needed to make some characters for the top of the cake. A video on YouTube taught us an easy way to make Charmander, a small dragon-like creature. We started with some red fondant.

Making the monsters!

We had some help from Mommy and sister to get the bellies and the feet (which are marzipan, to make a little variety).

Body with belly, legs, and arms

The video has a complicated (though great looking) way to make the flame for Charmander's tail. We passed on making the flames since we were making small characters, not a cake topper like in the video.

We didn't have the fancy carving tool either

The monsters came out well.

For the gaga ball pit, we bought some chocolate graham cracker sticks. Stacking the walls two sticks high made a good looking pit. We sprinkled in some cinnamon sugar for dirt.

Assembling the gaga ball pit

Add dirt

The final product was very satisfying for us.

Charmanders in!

With some nice piping

Overhead shot

The dinner itself was more relaxed than in previous years. It was just a dinner with the monthly awards for the boys. The bridging ceremony for the Arrows of Light (the Webelos who are moving on to Boy Scout Troops) was more elaborate, which was fun to see. We had a great time and came home with a different cake than the one we brought.

My son getting his monthly patches/belt loops from the Cubmaster

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Making Babka

We've had a new addition to the household--a fancier bread maker! The old machine has started making strange noises and is likely asking to be retired in its own robotic fashion. My wife heard that other bread machines, i.e. ones with a "jam setting," can make exotic things like risotto, since the machine will stir and cook even at the same time. After careful searching, she found one she liked.

Naturally, the first loaf with the new machine was a regular loaf just to make sure everything works well. (That's why we always hang on to the box for any appliance in case it needs returning.)

"Bake! Enjoy!"--it's practically the Sirius Cybernetics slogan!

First loaf done cooking

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, or at least until it's all eaten.

Goodbye, old friend!

Before it left us, the old bread machine did one last job. It mixed up some dough so we could make babka, a type of chocolate bread. By "we" I mean my daughter under the supervision of Mommy. The machine made some nice dough that was divided into equal shares.

One last batch for old time's sake

Splitting the dough like a proper bank robber

The dough was carefully rolled out and measured to be sure that when rolling time came, the loaf would be the right size and shape.

Twelve inches

Checking for extra

Chocolate is a favorite ingredient in our house. We always test the chocolate chips or the powder for flavor in case it has gone bad. Often, multiple family members demand to test the chocolate ingredient before it is added to the mix.

Mixing ingredients

Final destination

No need to measure with a ruler here

Ready to be rolled

With a little rolling and twisting, the two loaves were ready for the oven.

Not so appetizing yet

Covered to let the dough rise

The bread was a little overbaked (we didn't hear the timer go off since we were in the basement) but the loaves still turned out okay.

One loaf

The other loaf

We look forward to new projects in our new bread maker.