Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Book Review: Legends of the Outer Banks by Charles Whedbee

Legends of the Outer Banks by Charles Whedbee

I'm a fan of local folklore and had read a previous volume by this author. This volume has more of the same. The stories range from pre-revolutionary era to mid-twentieth century. Some of the stories are about supernatural or seemingly supernatural events. One Outer Banker had a horse race with the Devil, leaving indelible hoofprints that have lasted two hundred years. A kooky old woman (everyone called her a witch) had power over the wind, causing trouble for the local fishermen. A pale dolphin used to lead ships safely through the narrow shoals of the inlets. Other stories are merely fantastic, like a new-built church that floated to a new piece of land or a batch of Prohibition-era whiskey that was tossed overboard when the smugglers thought the Feds were on the way (the beachcombers had a big party that day!). A few pirate stories are included too.

The author has a nice, informal style that makes each story come alive. He has also explored the Outer Banks, discovering some of the strange spots (like the hoofprints) for himself. The book is an enjoyable, quick read.


Sample quote, because I thought this was an awesome story...
One of the proudest traditions of the area is the reply that a grizzled Coast Guard captain gave to a young recruit who asked fearfully whether the boat crew could expect to return alive if they put out through the raging sea on the rescue mission to which they had been called. "Son," replied the Skipper, "there is nothing in the manual that says we have to return. It only says we have to go." [p. 159]

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Book Review: Daredevil Vol. 4 by M. Waid et al.

Daredevil Volume 4 written by Mark Waid and art by Chris Samnee and Michael Allred

The Avengers perform some invasive surgery on Matt Murdock's brain after Doctor Doom filled it full of nanobots trying to steal Daredevil's sonar power. The surgery is mostly successful. Matt still has some troubles, especially when he starts hallucinating. His law partner, Foggy Nelson, has had it with Matt's instability and breaks up the legal team. Daredevil goes off the deep end as he faces a new villain, the Coyote. Coyote has been knocking off a lot of drug lord in New York City in gruesome and unlikely ways. Their confrontation resolves some problems for Matt but makes others worse.

The story takes a dark swerve away from the light-hearted swashbuckling in previous volumes. Matt deals with more personal demons and more horrible happenings. The ending itself is a bit of a downer for the Man without Fear. Still, I want to find out what happens, so I will keep reading!


Monday, January 18, 2021

Greenbelt Lake Walk

With a bit of unseasonably warm weather, we decided to get some sunshine and vitamin D by walking the trail around Greenbelt Lake in Maryland. 

We started at the community center complex, which includes the sadly closed library, and headed off to the lake loop trail.

Path to the lake loop

The first part of the lake was a body of water called a "forebay." Runoff water from storm drains often has a lot of junk in it. This bay collects that water and forces it through an embankment, giving it a bit of purifying before entering the lake proper.


Explanation of the forebay

The trail around the lake is paved in parts, crushed rocks in other parts. The path is nice and flat, making the walk very easy and enjoyable.

The day was a little cold

The lake was a little sparkly

Less sparkly part of the lake

At the far end of the lake (that's the far end from where we started), we saw a giant tree that was fenced off. This precaution was to protect the tree from climbers. It does look like an easy climb.

Old, friendly tree

The sign

The lake was calm and serene. We spotted another drainage area that keeps the lake from overflowing.

Swans on the lake

He's smiling, I swear!

Overflow drain

This house has a cool inclosed porch. It's on the lake, too!

I'd live here

Once we started our way back, we saw a hotel in the distance.

What's that tower?


Even though the walk is just a mile and a half, some of us had to stop for a rest.

Resting rock

Another house along the river had a lot of yard inflatables for Christmas.

Singing Santa and friends with a Grinch nearby

A lot of other inflatables

If you are lucky, you'll just get coal in your stocking

I didn't even see the Yeti!

Santa's elves go back in time

This house has a grotto. We weren't sure if it was deliberate or from flood damage.

I'd probably live here too

The walk was fun and we are thinking of going back for the historic Greenbelt walk. The town was built as part of the New Deal back in the 1930s and has an interesting architectural style.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Movie Review: Parasite (2019)

Parasite (2019) co-written and directed by Bong Joon Ho

A down-and-out Korean family lives in a basement apartment. They use their neighbor's wifi (without permission) and do odd jobs like folding pizza boxes for a local pizza place. They get a break when the son, Ki Woo (Choi Woo Shik), gets a visit from a college friend. The friend has a side-job tutoring a rich teen-age girl. But he is going to America for an extended period and thought of Ki Woo for the job. Ki Woo is worried that he isn't qualified, so his sister, Ki-Jung (Park So Dam), fakes some college records. The parents approve and Ki Woo discovers that the family is rich and has a beautiful home up on a hill. He recognizes how gullible the family is and starts to exploit them. The sister gets a job as an art tutor and therapist (something for which she has no qualifications other than Googling info about art) for the English student's younger brother. Soon enough, they've gotten some other people in the house fired so Mom and Dad can have jobs. The con goes fairly smoothly until the fired housekeeper comes back for something she left behind. Then the situation slowly and inevitably falls apart.

The social satire is sharp and acerbic. At first, the movie sympathizes with the poor family, though they quickly shift into manipulative and self-serving actions. The rich family is very passive but also incompetent. They don't check up on any of the lies they are told. The theme of class warfare is reinforced visually through the use of layers and staircases. The basement apartment has some ground-level windows but all they see is the street where drunks often come to pee. The house is on a hill but all they see is their yard and the carefully clumped together trees that blot out the rest of the city. Both families have limited and unrealistic views of the world, literally and metaphorically. The problem bleeds over into their relationships which are superficially cordial. Deeper down, they do not like each other. It's not that hard for conflict to start.

I have to say I don't share the pessimism of the filmmakers. They clearly look at the division of rich and poor as a class warfare that is bound to result in conflict. The characters' relations are parasitic, using the others for self-benefit while looking down on those others (a lose-lose situation). There's no sense that they could be symbiotic, doing different things for each other that are beneficial for the other and ultimately for the self (a win-win situation). Maybe if any of the characters had been decent human beings, things wouldn't have fallen apart like they did.

I admire this as a work of art, it is well-written and visually interesting. On the other hand, I wound up not liking any of the characters or the ending or the message of the movie. So I only have a half-hearted recommendation.

Slightly recommended.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Book Review: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

On the eve of a threatened resurgence of the Black Death in 1721, Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, about a saddlemaker who lived when the Black Death came in 1665. The account is fictional but based on resources Defoe had about the previous plague, i.e. several books and pamphlets of personal stories and statistics gathered during and after the plague. 

The plague in England started (supposedly) with a shipment from the continent that caused a death at the end of 1664. A few deaths here and there happened in the subsequent months. The breakout happened in the summer of 1665, with contagion sweeping through the city and eventually the rest of the country. The unnamed saddlemaker who narrates his experiences in the first person does not flee the city as a lot of people did. He wasn't rich enough to have a country house or desperate enough to try his chances wandering aimlessly. He can't overcome his curiosity during the quarantine and wanders the streets, providing first-person accounts of the horrors.

The situation was eerily similar to today's situation. A lot of people watched the statistics in the newspapers to judge how serious the situation was. People interpreted the information differently, occasionally resulting in conflicts. A lot of people started making predictions, even claiming personal insights come from God. The author (the saddlemaker does seem like a stand-in for Defoe) is quite skeptical about good and bad predictions, though people were adamant in their positions:
"I could fill this account with the strange relations such people gave every day of what they had seen; and every one was so positive of their having seen what they pretended to see, that there was no contradicting them without breach of friendship, or being accounted rude and unmannerly on the one hand, and profane and impenetrable on the other." [pp. 30-31]
Perhaps no generation has a monopoly on pigheadedness. Quarantines were called for and those who managed to stock up on supplies before the call were in much better shape.

On the other hand, the situation was also very different. To alleviate the unemployment caused by the quarantine, the city government hired people to be watchmen. The watchmen made sure that houses that had plague remained shut, i.e. the people couldn't go out, even if only one person in the house had the plague. The enforcement was not so successful. Houses often had multiple exits that one man couldn't cover; some watchmen accepted bribes to look the other way. People snuck out to get food and medicine or to flee the city. The plague moved slowly, hitting the western part of the city hard, then subsiding as it became worse in the eastern part. The Black Death was a much more horrible disease than we are currently experiencing. People died in one or two days and in horrible agony, often at home or in the street. Each parish had someone in charge of bringing dead bodies to be buried. The death carts were soon overwhelmed, as were the graveyards. Giant pits were dug to cast the bodies in since there was no time for proper funerals. It was considered safer to dispose of the infected quickly.

This book reads like a proto-post-apocalyptic thriller. The account is more like journalism than a personal survival story. The author tells a lot of other people's stories and gives general descriptions of what people were doing. Even so, it makes for fascinating reading. 

Highly recommended for reading now--there's a bizarre comfort in realizing things have been worse before and we've come out of it okay. The plague subsided by the beginning of 1666, the year of the Great Fire in London

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Book Review: Usagi Yojimbo Book 1 by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Book 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

Miyamoto Usagi is a wandering samurai in feudal Japan. His lord was killed, so he is a ronin. Usagi wanders around and has many adventures as he hires himself out as a yojimbo or bodyguard. He's also a rabbit ("usagi" is the Japanese word for rabbit). These tales are no Bugs Bunny adventures or even Peter Cottontail tales. The stories are very serious, just set with animals (like Watership Down). He helps out other samurai, even bounty hunters. He is almost unbeatable in a fight, even facing a horde of lackeys or ninjas. This volume gives Usagi's back story, including visiting his home town and explaining the battle in which his lord died.

Though the book is serious, the art is not graphically violent. The most readers see is a drop or two of blood flying, a pained expression, or a little ghostly skull-and-crossbones over vanquished opponents. The book has some humor (at one point, Usagi asks a bounty hunter, "Why does a bounty hunter need a bodyguard?") to lighten the mood. Usagi is a very honorable warrior, embodying the bushido code of the samurai.

While the book is not particularly deep, it is interesting and engaging. It strikes the right tone to make the stories entertaining. I will definitely try out more.


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Game Review: Star Wars: Unlock! The Escape Game

 Star Wars: Unlock! The Escape Game published by Space Cowboys

We have played many Unlock! games in the past, with mixed results. Most of the experiences were good but two or three of them had puzzles that made no sense to us at all, even after seeing the solution. So we are cautious about new Unlock! games. But the Star Wars theme was a "take my money right now!" moment. Or at least, "put that on my Amazon wish list right now!" Christmas morning saw me opening a highly anticipated gift.

The game has three separate escape game decks inside, along with a small intro deck to help new players learn the various game mechanics (like adding red and blue cards together, using lock codes on the app, and using machines on the app). We've played enough games that we jumped into the first game. 

The first games is Escape from Hoth. It covers the first act of The Empire Strikes Back, i.e. the battle on Hoth. All the story beats show up--riding a Tauntaun, fighting the Wampa, locating the probe droids, fixing the snow speeders, fighting the AT-AT assault, and escaping the Hoth base. The puzzles were fun and not too difficult. The play felt thematic and brought back a lot of happy memories of the movie. We had a few minor errors and scored four out of five.

A solid performance

The second games is An Unforeseen Delay. Players are smugglers for Jabba the Hutt who have been captured by an Imperial cruiser. The first task is to break out of a prison cell with the help of a cellmate. Then players sneak around trying to free their astromech (like R2-D2) and their impounded cargo before finding their ship and getting away. At one point, we had a Stormtrooper blaster rifle and my son wanted to shoot everything in sight. We held him back until we had a good reason to shoot. At another point, we had to communicate with the droid, played by one of us. The droid player was not allowed to talk and used the app to answer yes or no questions with R2-style beeps and boops. This game had some really fun puzzles and ended dramatically and satisfactorily. Our rating was five of five!

We were better as smugglers!

The third game is Secret Mission on Jedha. Players are Imperial agents looking for a lost case of kyber crystals. A ship crashed in the desert and the hunt is on for clues to where the case wound up. The variety of puzzles is fun. The story provides a nice narrative and was satisfying to finish. We played half one night, leaving the app open on my phone. The next day, we tried to finish up but the app had closed, losing our progress. My wife and I did a quick catch up to unlock the clues we had already discovered. Our score was five of five, with an asterisk since we didn't repeat our initial errors in the first run. Also, we probably had record time solving it.

22 minutes must be a record

This game has its own app which is good since the regular Unlock! app has a lot of games already in it. The music on the app is from Holst's The Planets, which surprised me. I guess the Star Wars license did not include the iconic music. Some of the iconic sound effects make it in, like the R2 beeps in the second game. Some puzzles are solved in the app. The variety of those puzzles is good and they take advantage of the touch screen and the ability to move the app device around. The app is indispensable for play and does add to the enjoyment.

The individual games also feature special ability cards for that particular game. Players choose three of the six cards, like "Droid expert" or "Ace pilot." The cards give hints on how to solve some of the puzzles. I didn't think they were necessary. The kids enjoyed picking out new abilities.

Recommended, highly for Star Wars fans.