Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: Avatar The Last Airbender: North and South Part Three by G.L. Yang et al.

Avatar The Last Airbender: North and South Part 3 written by Gene Luen Yang, art and cover by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Team Avatar works to protect a meeting between Southern Water Tribe leader Hakoda and the newly arrived Fire Lord Zuko and Earth King Kuei. They have come at Hakoda's invitation to discuss plans and support for economic development in the Southern Water Tribe's kingdom. Oil has been discovered and a refinery is under construction but some locals oppose development that might turn the Southern Water Tribe into a pale imitation of the other nations. Resistance leader Gilak (who was imprisoned in the last issue) breaks out of jail and makes trouble for everyone.

As always, Yang does a great job balancing the action and jokes with a more substantive storyline. Waterbender Katara has both nostalgia for the tribe's past and fear of a future assimilation into the other cultures. The story presents many sides of the issue and gives a nice, hopeful resolution.

Highly recommended!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

Captain Fantastic (2016) written and directed by Matt Ross

Viggo Mortensen is Ben, a father of six who lives with his children in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Ben is a survivalist and intellectual and wants to pass those on to his children. They live a life that is idyllic for Ben; the children hardly know any other life. On one of his runs to a nearby town for mail and supplies, he calls his father-in-law to check on the status of his wife, who had been hospitalized many months before. This call is the worst news--she has committed suicide. And the father-in-law says he will have Ben arrested if he shows up for the funeral because he blames Ben for her condition. Ben tells the children, who are naturally very sad though Ben is not very comforting. When he reads her will, he discovers that she wants to be cremated and taken to a populous area where her ashes will be flushed down a toilet. Ben wants to respect her wishes, so he packs the kids up and heads off to the Southwestern United States.

Initially Ben's life is presented as idyllic. The children read and discuss and farm and hunt in the forest. Once they confront the rest of the world, the contrast is stark and his parenting looks very questionable. The oldest son, who has been accepted to a bunch of Ivy League universities, has no ability to talk to young women his own age. The children's lack of basic social and life skills is a reflection of his anti-capitalist ideology which has really poisoned them against everything--for example, he hates not just fast food but even a normal diner or restaurant (claiming "there's no real food on this menu"), though he's perfectly willing to steal junk food from a grocery store. The contradictions in his lifestyle come to a head when he gets to his wife's funeral and he has to confront his father-in-law.

The movie's great strength is that it shows both the good and bad of Ben's decisions and forces him to deal with the consequences for himself and for his children. Exploring that shift for Ben is quite fascinating. The movie waffles a bit at the end, trying to have two very different emotional endings. He both gives up everything and gets everything he wants, which makes no narrative or thematic sense in the story, especially with the third and final ending where Ben has learned to adjust, presumably for the sake of his children.

This movie brings up a lot of interesting points for discussion but, as a narrative, the strong beginning is let down by too many endings that don't fit with each other.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

One Ingredient Challenge: Fizzy Fruit

Part of an ongoing series of cooking from scratch. That is, we cook something from basic items that don't have multiple ingredients (e.g. store-bought spaghetti sauce includes all sorts of spices and maybe other stuff too; we'd start with tomatoes and individual spices and add them together to make our own sauce). See other challenges here.

This particular challenge is unique. My wife found out about fizzy fruit through the wonders of the randomness of the internet. Fizzy fruit is introducing carbonation into fruit through the use of dry ice. We took the recipe from Chef Steps and didn't change a thing.

The basic recipe is putting fruit in a container (like a cooler) with the dry ice (about a pound is good). Trick #1--The dry ice should be covered with a towel or rag to keep from freezing the fruit. Trick #2--The cooler should be wrapped in plastic wrap to keep the dry ice fumes (scientifically known as Carbon Dioxide) from dissipating.

The cooler under wraps

We set this up the night before my daughter's First Communion, hoping to spring it on the guests at the party afterward. We used red grapes, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries.

Prepping fruit

In the First Communion dress (in case you missed the earlier post)

When we cracked open the cooler just before the party, there was no hiss or blast of cold air. We got the fruit out and found that most had frozen. We had covered the dry ice with a dish towel but maybe we should have used a more substantial towel. We plated the fruit with the hope of some thawing.

The goods

My daughter pealed a grape to see the bubbles, but there were none.

Cracking open a grape

Luscious (but not visibly fizzy) insides

Even so, we could taste a little fizz with the grapes. The blueberries and the blackberries also worked well. The strawberries did not work so well. The guests were impressed but not wowed by our fizzy fruit. I think we overdosed on the dry ice and may have to scale back next time. The video never mentioned the fruit freezing. Maybe we've made a new discovery?

After dinner that evening, we had fun doing some simple experiments with the leftover dry ice. First we put a chunk in a glass of water and saw the carbon dioxide ooze over. Then, we put soap in the glass of water to make a huge pile of bubbles. Finally, we tried filling balloons with carbon dioxide. Getting the ice inside the balloon was too hard, so we put the ice in a beer bottle and the balloon over the top. The balloon filled but did not fly off. We were too busy having fun to take pictures!

Good luck if you try this for your next big party!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (1970)

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (1970) written by Robert Holmes and directed by Derek Martinus

The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) makes his debut (in color, no less!) when the Earth is threatened by invasion yet again. A group of objects have fallen to Earth and are not the typical space debris. They are glowing orbs being collected by odd-looking mannequin people (and one cantankerous human farmer). The Doctor is still recovering from his transformation, so roughly the first of the four episodes is more about the local reaction, especially the activities of U.N.I.T., the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. They are trying to locate and investigate the orbs as well as determine the identity of the Doctor (since he has a new face, he doesn't look like the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) anymore). Meanwhile, the baddies are slowly revealing themselves and their nefarious plans.

Slow is probably the key word in describing this story arc. Not much happens in the first episode other than establishing the various characters. The plot moves forward very slowly and the action doesn't pick up until late in episode two. The finale has some wobbly special effects, a bit of a shock after a fairly good, minimalist presentation of the bad guys. Pertwee is more dashing and robust as the Doctor, and not so comical as others before and after him. He may be a little too serious as the Doctor, though his good looks are offset by the flamboyant cape and puffy shirt. He's not my favorite Doctor but he does a good job.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: Wires and Nerves Vol. 1 by M. Meyer et al.

Wires and Nerves Volume 1 written by Marissa Meyer and art by Doug Holgate with Stephen Gilpin

A band consisting of a mutant, a cyborg, an android, and some humans have successfully led a revolt against the Lunar queen and put the rightful queen (a teenager and the aforementioned cyborg whose name is Cinder) on the throne. That's good news because it ended the war between the Moon and the Earth. But there's still some problems, like the army of genetically-altered wolf-human hybrids the evil queen sent to subjugate the Earth. Small packs of the army still wander around terrorizing (and eating) locals. Queen Cinder has sent the aforementioned android (named Iko) as a secret agent to take out the wolf packs one by one. Hopefully the situation will be settled enough that Cinder can safely attend attend a festival and ball which the Earth emperor (one of the aforementioned humans and quite the hottie) will attend.

The story is a continuation of a Young Adult fantasy series called The Lunar Chronicles. I had no idea when I selected the book, I just saw it in the "new graphic novels" section on the library web site and liked the cover and the title (there must be some sci fi robot story called "Nerves of Steel" somewhere, right?). The series reimagines classic fairy tales in a science fiction setting, thus Cinder is based on Cinderella, though she is her own character and not just Cinderella in Space. This particular story has a bit more focus on dresses and romance than I was expecting, so those parts of the story stuck out for me. On further reflection, the storytelling is balanced between action, romance, and political intrigue. No element is particularly deep or new, but together they make a fun story.


Monday, May 22, 2017

First Communion 2017

Our daughter had her First Communion on the day before Mother's Day this year. She has been diligently preparing spiritually.

Dress, veil, and wrap (shoes not visible)

She's been doing well in her religious education classes and we received an email from the director asking if our daughter would like to be a reader. She readily agreed and practiced at home several times. Her brother read the first reading last year at his First Communion. She had the second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles:
The followers of Jesus spent their time learning from the apostles, and they were like family to each other. They also broke bread and prayed together.
Everyone was amazed at the many miracles and wonders that the apostles worked.
All the Lord’s followers often met together, and they shared everything they had. They would sell their property and possessions and give the money to whoever needed it. Day after day they met together in the temple. They broke bread together in different homes and shared their food happily and freely, while praising God. Everyone liked them, and each day the Lord added to their group others who were being saved.
She read beautifully and made us all want to be in that early Christian community.

Like last year, they didn't have pictures during the Mass, so we have none of the actual event. It was a very beautiful moment with family gathered around her.

Since it was a rainy day, after the Mass they did not take a group picture outside. Instead, they went to the parish hall where a lovely picture was taken.

Taken from the Religious Ed Facebook page!

The gathering afterward went rather quickly. My daughter picked up her certificate and the special cross given to each communicant and we headed back home.

A quick selfie with Granny's phone

There were a few parking lot photos but we did not do many other pictures. She has a natural modesty about her that precluded many photos.

With mom

Close to mom

Back home, she slowly changed her outfit back into regular clothes. The party was lots of fun, with yummy foods, good conversations, and fabulous presents.

Still no shoes, sorry!

The day was very beautiful and precious to us.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Charlie Gordon works in a bakery doing the most menial tasks. Nowadays we'd call him mentally challenged (or possibly a more specific diagnosis) but in the book (published in 1966) he is described as retarded. Even though he lacks many skills, he has the ambition to be more. He goes to special classes to help him read and write better. The teacher recommends him for experimental surgery and therapy that may increase his intelligence. The scientists have succeeded in making a mouse named Algernon smarter. The mouse can solve mazes with skill and speed. When Charlie is first brought to the lab, the scientists give him a paper-and-pencil version of the same maze that Algernon is about to run. The mouse beats Charlie. Charlie doesn't give up--he agrees to the experiment. His intelligence is increased, even beyond the level of the experimenters. But then Algernon shows signs of deterioration. Will the same thing happen to Charlie? Can he avoid losing his new-found intelligence?

The story is told through Charlie's journals. He begins writing them at the request of the scientists. The first entries have the poor spelling and grammar characteristic of Charlie's state. They also reveal a little bit of his family history and how he's been treated by his co-workers at the bakery (not too well). The transformation into an intelligent person is believable as is his character development as he learns more about the world and himself. Smartly, the story recognizes that his emotional development is not considered in the experiment, leading to problems for Charlie in dealing with others. He realizes intellectually how few people have treated him like a person and becomes a bit difficult and taciturn, in part because his emotional development doesn't match his intellectual development. He tries to reach out to his estranged family but has a difficult time there as well. His eventual slide back into a less intelligent state is heart-breaking.

The story is very compelling and well worth reading. It's also the topic of discussion at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast #154.