Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

In the far distant future, an academic, Paul Bentley, moves to Columbia University in New York City for the summer because he'd like to teach a skill he has recently discovered--reading. The head of the University is Bob Spofforth, a Make Nine robot. Make Nines were top of the line, able to run multi-national corporations and dictate global policies. He's been around for hundreds of years, so unlike his human counterparts on the faculty, he knows what reading is. He's intrigued and has Paul come, though the robot has an ulterior motive. He wants Paul to translate title cards from early 20th century silent films, an odd project that Paul happily begins. Spofforth's mechanical brain was patterned after a human brain, though the personal memories were taken out. Spofforth has occasional dreams that he thinks are memories from that human and hopes those memories will manifest themselves if he knows more about ancient human life.

In his spare time, Paul explores New York City. The citizens are typical for the age. They have a heightened sense of privacy, so much so that they barely make eye contact, let alone have conversations with other people. Humans are constantly taking drugs to feel no pain, which may be understandable since they seem to have little meaningful work. Robots do the manual work as well as services industry jobs. The local fast food joint has a Make Two behind the counter who is rather oblivious to people who burn themselves to death in the booths. Suicide by immolation is disturbingly common.

Paul's exploration takes him to the zoo, where he discovers an odd woman. Mary Lou is there all the time--she lives there, "off the grid" as we'd say nowadays. No drugs, no smoking. Her big vice is pilfering sandwiches from a vending machine. Paul invites her back to his campus apartment where he teaches her to read. It's an awkward situation at first as it violates the social idea of privacy. If Spofforth or others find out they will be in big trouble. Of course, reading is technically a crime (though nobody else knows how to do it), so they are in constant danger from that too.

The book is a fascinating hybrid of Fahrenheit 451 and Children of Men (did I mention there are no humans under the age of thirty?), though it certainly stands on its own. The vision of hedonistic culture leading humans into a solipcistic and consumerist mess is well thought out and completely fascinating. Robots were developed as labor saving devices but have apparently taken over almost every job. Supposedly people are free to pursue more worth-while goals like personal development but 99 per cent are just wandering from meaningless pleasure to meaningless pleasure. The bleakness of the story is tempered by the ultimate resolution of of the three main character's journeys. This book is well worth hunting down (I had to get it through inter-library loan) and reading.

For deeper commentary on the book, check out A Good Story is Hard to Find Podcast #110.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

TV Review: Broadchurch Series Two (2014)

Broadchurch Series Two created by Chris Chibnall

After the harrowing investigation of the death of a eleven-year old Daniel Latimer in the English coastal town of Broadchurch in the first series, the second series focuses on the trial of the guy who confessed to the crime. In the first episode, he enters his plea: not guilty. Everyone (including his defense attorney) is surprised. New legal teams are brought in for both sides. The defense has a win-at-all-costs young lawyer who is rather cynical about the justice system (with many reasons revealed through subsequent episodes). The prosecution has an older female barrister from Broadchurch come out of retirement to win one last case for the hometown. Sparks fly and more secrets are revealed as they spar over the truth and the possibilities of what happened the night of Daniel Latimer's death.

Meanwhile, new developments are happening in Alec Hardy's (well played by David Tennant) previous case, the one where things fell apart and it drove him to Broadchurch as a refuge. The prime suspect is back in the country and is trying to find his wife, who's been hiding in a cottage provided by Hardy. The old case starts to blow wide open, giving Hardy a chance to redeem himself for the botched case. Like the Broadchurch case, Hardy's case is much more complicated than it seems.

The acting and writing are excellent again, as is the cinematography. Viewers will have an easy time getting sucked into watching multiple episodes in one evening. The show does have one surprise relationship come up at the end that felt like shoe-horning in some politically correct content rather than actually contributing to the story or the theme. Otherwise this is a great show and a worthy successor to the first series.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Cub Scout Day Camp 2015--Days Four and Five

Jacob's adventures at the Cub Scout Day Camp 2015 concluded with two more days of challenges and fun. (See Day One and Days Two and Three).

On Thursday, they were back on the BB range with this result for Jacob:

Three shots across the top

Considering his lack of experience, this impressed me quite a bit. He may be asking for a BB gun for Christmas, we'll see if he remembers by then.

They went back to Geology where they cracked open geodes. Jacob brought the broken rocks home for us to admire.

Geode insides

At STEM (that's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math for those not up on the latest educational lingo), they did the Engineering part and built paper airplanes. Jacob's made it all the way home!

An engineering marvel

The pictures from Tuesday came in, with a very nice shot of Jacob and a fun group picture of his den mates and leaders.

Two pictures in one

Close up of Jacob

On Friday, I was back on site helping out and taking pictures. The den's first stop was the archery range, where Jacob showed marked improvement over Wednesday.

Getting help from a range assistant

Getting ready to shoot

Get that elbow up!

A slain target

We went to Fitness where Jacob and his mates tried out tug-of-war, races, and sharks and minnows.

Crab-walk race with many different kinds of crabs!

Ga Ga Ball was next, popular as always. It was paired with life-sized Foosball, which Jacob also tried. His team had a tied score, 1-1.

Ga Ga Ball again!

Scouts playing foosball

After lunch, we went back to the Craftsman station, where the scouts tried out leather working. With some careful instruction, they personalized leather bookmarks.

Jacob stamping letters onto his bookmark

The finished product

At Whittling, they did more work on their bars of soap, crafting a fish. It was tough work but enjoyable too.

Jacob whittling

Take-home--knife, strop, and carving

The final station was Showmanship, where the boys played charades and learned about stage directions (e.g. stage left, up stage, etc.).

The closing ceremonies were delightfully short and the camp leader announced next years theme--Construction! We are looking forward to Day Camp in 2016!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cub Scout Day Camp 2015--Days Two and Three

I dropped off Jacob for day two of the Cub Scout Day Camp (see here for day one) and only have his report for how things went that day. He went to the BB rifle range again and scored eight. He even brought home his target.

Holes on left top and about two inches left of the top 8

I think that's great for the first time he ever fired a rifle. I did much more poorly on my first time.

He went to the Craftsman station, where all the boys crafted boats for an impromptu rain gutter regatta. All we have is the boat, which is a fine cork-bottomed ship.

Craftsman boat (not available at Sears)

The only other report submitted was about a fun game of soccer, during which Jacob scored a goal. He did not bring the ball home with him.

On the third day of camp, I was volunteering again and was able to observe firsthand the variety of activities. After a long-winded opening ceremony (a bunch of local politicians showed up and made little speeches), we headed off to Outdoor Skills, where Jacob learned to tie a square knot.

Next on our agenda was Fitness, where the boys got to play catch, walk on balance beams, and race by frog hopping and crab walking. They had a lot of fun but got a little tired.

Frog hopping

The star of the day was next--Archery. After a safety refresher we headed down to the range where the boys fired off five arrows, collected them from the targets (and nearby ground), and fired a second volley of arrows. Jacob enjoyed it but it is not his best sport. I think we need to show him some live action Robin Hood or other archer-filled videos.

Retrieving from the target

We went back to our den for lunch and a bit of shopping at the Trading Post. The sales were mostly snacks and candy, with a few inexpensive plastic spy/investigator toys like magnifying glasses, handcuffs, notepads, etc. Jacob stuck mostly to snacks.

Dens and Trading Post were in the main building of the fairgrounds

After lunch we went to the Science Station, where we learned about electromagnetism from a PowerPoint slide show (snore!) and then built a simple engine with a coil of wire, a AA battery, and a magnet. When put together properly, the coil will spin around the battery and magnet on its own. We sort of got it to work and plan to try again at home.


Jacob and his motor coil

Citizenship was our next station, where we learned how to fold American flags properly (which we had learned earlier in the year). The boys practiced the skill on small flags which they put in baggies along with notes to be sent to servicemen stationed overseas.

Folding small flags

Geocaching was the next activity, at which Jacob is an old hand. We had to walk around outside in the heat of the day, so we only found two of the three caches before retiring to a shady tree for our afternoon snack.

The final station was Showmanship, where the boys made hand puppets. They were to go back the next day to perform with the puppets, an event I missed.

After the closing ceremony, we left for home, satisfied with another fun day at Cub Scout camp.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Cub Scout Day Camp 2015--Day One

Jacob went to his first Cub Scout Day Camp, a week-long, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. extravaganza of activities, learning, and fun. I volunteered to help out three days--Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Happily, Granny and Grandpa were visiting and took care of Nicholas and Lucy while Jacob and I were at camp. On Tuesday and Thursday I dropped Jacob off and got back home to play with the younger ones. But back to the camp!

We started the first day by signing into the den and getting our gear--hats and ID badges. This year's theme is CSI--Cub Scout Investigators. A lot of science and spy-like stuff could be found all over the fairgrounds.

Jacob geared up for camp

Daddy and Jacob together

The first two stations were the two most awesome stations--BB Rifles and Archery. On the first day, the station managers gave us the safety instructions that we'd use later in the week. The rifle range also had the boys try out lying down and aiming the rifles. They loved it.

The third station was Geology, where the scouts learned how rocks have been forming and reforming over the years. They were given buckets of sand to sift through and find different types of rocks, including the highly-coveted obsidian. Jacob found four or five pieces of the precious stone in his bucket.

Learning about rocks

Searching for rocks

We had lunch next, followed by a station devoted to diversity awareness. They had some interesting activities, including trying out crutches and wheel chairs, as well as designing a type face to help dyslexics read more easily. Later, Jacob said it was kinda boring.

Another popular station was Water Games, featuring a massive slip and slide that was the hit of the day. It was fun. It was cool. It was wet. The boys got to take off their shoes! What more could one ask for?

Jacob on the water slide

After the water, things heated up with Ga Ga Ball, a popular Scouting game where the boys have to hit a ball with their hands to hit the other boys in the leg. At first, with twenty kids in the pit, chaos ruled. Once the group was whittled down to a manageable number, the game became more skills based. The kids loved it immensely. And the ball pit was the most polished and professional-looking one I've ever seen!

Ga Ga Ball arena

Our last station was Whittling. The boys sharpened their own wooden knives with a sanding block and then practiced good whittling techniques. They started carving a bar of soap by removing the brand-name logo. The knives, soap bars, and cleaning sticks were put in zip-lock bags for the next Whittling session later in the week, where they'd learn more techniques and make something even fancier.

We went outside for the closing ceremony and then headed home after a great day.

More to come in the next post!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Review: Baltimore: A Passing Stranger and Other Stories by Mike Mignola et al.

Baltimore: A Passing Stranger and Other Stories written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, art by Ben Stenbeck, colors by Dave Stewart

Lord Henry Baltimore continues his quest to kill Haigus, the vampire who killed his family. He has trouble catching up to that vampire but does have run ins with various other monsters, including humans who have no business dabbling in matter far beyond their understanding or control. The book is a collection of a handful of short stories.

I like the art style of this book, it's well suited to horror stories. I didn't find the stories particularly compelling because they feel unoriginal to me. In one story, a theater company is putting on shows and the writer for the company is getting advice from Edgar Allen Poe's head in a jar, even though the "head in jar" idea has been used by The Walking Dead, Futurama, and by Mignola himself. There's another story with the Inquisitor character that gives his back story which also reads a bit cliched and unmoving.

The art is fine but the writing needs some improvement or originality.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Dice Masters: Trinity War Storyline Event 1

Jacob and I competed in our first game competition, the DC Dicemasters Trinity War Storyline Organized Play Event 1 at our local game story, The Family Game Store. We were a little nervous going in since we had never competed before AND we have only been playing Dice Masters for two months or so AND we have never played with the DC characters (being Marvel fans). Even with our lack of experience, we had a great time at the event.

Only four people came to the event, so Jacob and I were half the players! The other two guys were friendly and we got along well.

The first part of the event is what they call a "Rainbow Draft." Each player opens six booster packs (which have two dice and two matching character cards), puts the dice in the middle (where the rainbow comes in, since the colorful dice are arranged by character) and the cards face down in front of them. Each player takes their deck of twelve cards, chooses one to keep, and passes the remaining eleven to the left. Each player takes the deck that comes to them from the right and chooses one card to keep, passing the remaining ten cards to the left. This "take and pass" keeps going until all the cards are chosen. Then the players open a second set of six booster packs and the process repeats itself, except that the cards are passed to the right rather than the left. At the end of the draft, each player has 24 cards and takes the dice that correspond to the cards. So Jacob and I came away with a combined 48 cards and 48 dice just from the draft.

Our haul of cards (bag of dice at top)

Naturally there are some duplicates, but that's okay since it means the player has more than one die for each character. For example, I had two different Robin cards meaning I took two Robin dice from the middle and was able to field two dice when I played.

Then we had to play against each other. Jacob and I were assigned as opponents for the first round. We each chose eight characters for playing and two action cards that we brought with us. In our first game, Jacob won quite handily. He went on to play against the winner of the other game, while I face the loser of the other game.

Jacob fought valiantly but was soon defeated. The two losers took a long time to resolve their game, so Jacob played a second game for fun. My opponent had Superman, who I couldn't knock out once he got in the field. By the time I fielded a Black Canary that could knock out Superman for free on a lucky roll, I was down to seven life. In his next turn, he fielded Superman again and had Martian Manhunter. I had only one blocker, so I would take seven damage either way, which meant I lost again!

In the third round, the computer matched me against Jacob. This time I barely squeaked out a win against Jacob's team. Overall, I came in third out of four. Jacob came in second! I was very proud of him. As prizes, we received a special action card (Pandora's Box) for participating and the first three places received a special Superman Trinity War card (but no die). We also received some booster packs for second and third place. I received a special award for bringing my son--an additional booster pack. So now we have six extra packs to open at home.


After things were over, the first place winner asked if we'd trade our rare Aquaman for some cards and dice. Jacob readily agreed and the guy gave us a bunch of cards and dice in exchange (I think they were all duplicates for him!). He was very generous.

I'm not sure that we are converted to DC fans, but we had a ton of fun playing in the contest and are looking forward to Event 2 in July!