Thursday, December 31, 2015

War of the Christmas Novelty Ales 2015

Here we are again, mixing merriment and beer! (apologies to Merle Haggard). This year I managed to find a whole bunch of Christmas novelty ales, though three of them are from the same brewery. America, England, and Belgium are represented.

Reindeer Droppings by Ridgeway Brewing

  • From the bottle (high marks for the cute label, by the way): "Falling from the sky like little bombs of flavour come the Reindeer Droppings! Each one is sweet like California raisins, but bitter and pungent like a freshly peeled grapefruit, lip-smackingly tasty--then 'pow!' it's gone. How did that happen?" 
  • From me--It's an English Amber Ale and does do a good job of mixing the sweet and the bitter, much like the holiday season, or getting dropped on by a tiny flying herd. They even get the bitter hit that drops off. The effect is amazing but it is more of a one-time experience for me. I think it's okay but I don't need to drink it again.

Merry Christmas/Happy New Year 2015 by Anchor Brewing

  • From the bottle: "This is the forty-first annual 'Our Special Ale' from the brewers at Anchor. It is sold only from early November to mid-January. The Ale's recipe is different every year, as is the tree on the label, but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew."
  • From me--This year's tree is Cedrus deodara. This year's brew has a rich, dark chocolaty flavor that finishes a little bitter but not too bitter. The flavor lingers in the mouth, not an unpleasant result. A good, dark beer.

Very Bad Elf by Ridgeway Brewing

  • From the bottle: "'Is it just my imagination,' queried old Santa, surveying the scene, 'or is my Elf only getting worse and worse every year? What's next? Seriously Bad Elf, I'll wager. Mark my words.' This Very Bad Elf is one fine ale--rich, hardy, and flavourful, brewed to an original 1795 Thames Valley recipe, with a very special pale amber malt that is rarely used nowadays, and balanced by a modest addition of English Fuggle aroma hops. 'Ere's to your elf! Peter Scholey, Brewer." 
  • From me: This brew is a nice amber ale, crisp and tangy. The flavor doesn't shout itself at the drinker which I like a lot.

Winter Welcome Ale by Samuel Smith Old Brewery

  • From the bottle: "This seasonal beer is a limited edition brewed for the short days and long nights of winter. The full body resulting from fermentation in 'stone Yorkshire squares' and the luxurious malt character, which will appeal to a broad range of drinkers, is balanced against whole-dried Fuggle and Golding hops with nuances and complexities that should be contemplated before an open fire." 
  • From me: How could I resist buying an ale from Yorkshire? I didn't drink it before an open fire but did appreciate the sweet malty smell and flavor. It's rich and flavorful.

Delirium Noel by The Huyghe Brewery

  • From the bottle: "Belgian Ale - Family Brewery - Huyghe - since 1654 - 1 Pint 9.4 Fl. Oz." 
  • From me: Yeah, the label doesn't sell this as a special seasonal ale. It has a strong, dark, nutty taste that I like, along with that classic Belgian flavor that I love. Being over a pint and a half and 10 per cent alcohol content, this is definitely a "one per evening" beer for me, but it is well worth it.

Lump of Coal Dark Holiday Stout by Ridgeway Brewing

  • From the bottle: "Yet another bummed-out holiday? Lump of Coal Dark Holiday Stout is liquid consolation. It's a deep, rich, sweetly rewarding stout to take the edge off of that grim family gathering, that cheerless annual festival of alienation. This brew is as dark as it gets, as black as the lump of coal you'll be getting for Christmas. Because, let's face it, you've been pretty bad this year." 
  • From me: No holiday cheer here, is there? This stout is sharp but not bitter. The darkness is a refreshing companion to the short days this time of year. It is slightly chocolaty and smoky. A good stout from a company that is blitzkrieging the holiday beer market.

St. Bernardus Christmas Ale by Brewery St. Bernardus

  • From the bottle: "St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is the youngest descendant in the illustrious family of delicious Abbey Ales brewed by Brewery St. Bernardus since 1946. This specialty ale of 10% alc./vol. is characterized by its deep dark color with a creamy, thick head, and a full, almost velvety mouthful with a fruity nose. It's a seasonal ale, brewed annually for the Holiday Season. The long winter nights are perfect moments to savor this ale with family and friends, and to enjoy its unique, complex taste."
  • This ale does have a sweetness that hints at fruit without tasting like fruit, so I like that very much. Though maybe the sweetness is from the chocolaty/caramel flavor too? The brewery is in Belgium and it has an overall flavor that is definitely Belgian. I like it a lot.
The winner this year (i.e. my favorite) is St. Bernardus Christmas Ale! Merry Christmas to all and I look forward to next year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book Review: The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

This final volume of the Mistborn Trilogy (see reviews of book one and book two) brings its world to the brink of Ruin. Ruin being the god-like conscious elemental force that Vin released from the Well of Ascension at the conclusion of the second book. Ruin, as its name implies, seeks the destruction of the world. In ancient times, Ruin and its opposite, the god-like conscious elemental force called Preservation, made a deal where they worked together to create the world. Preservation wanted a special creation, man, so it gave extra of itself to create human beings with the freedom to conserve or destroy. Ruin wanted something extra as well--to destroy the world they had created. They agreed in ancient times but later on Preservation trapped Ruin at the Well of Ascension so that mankind could live perpetually. Preservation gave up almost all of its consciousness to accomplish this imprisonment. Now that Ruin is free, the end of the world seems at hand. The ashmounts are throwing more ash in the air, blocking out the sun and covering up plants so the people can't grow crops. Earthquakes are unnaturally frequent. The mists come out earlier in the evenings and stay later in the mornings, also causing problems for crops and for people afraid of the mist-sickness that has been killing a few and leaving many sick for weeks.

Vin and her husband, Emperor Elend Venture, fight to stop all the havoc. They've discovered secret messages from the Lord Ruler in special caverns he stocked with supplies for just such an occasion as the end of the world. It turns out the Lord Ruler (who certainly seemed like a villain in the first two books) was preparing for his eventual fall and the release of Ruin. He wanted to give the world a chance to fight back. He created the koloss as powerful fighters and the inquisitors as religious leaders. Ruin has been secretly undermining that plan and uses the koloss and the inquisitors to bring about the end of the world. Ruin has been literally rewriting history--anything written on paper can be changed by Ruin to read differently (that's how Vin was tricked into releasing Ruin at the Well).  Only words written on metal (such as those left in the special caverns) can't be changed. How can our heroes win out against such a powerful and nefarious foe?

The book justifies the five hundred or so pages of world building I complained about in the second book. The different creatures (koloss, inquisitors, kandra) and the larger world are all brought into context and significance in this final volume. Seemingly insignificant details help to explain the larger story and bring about a satisfying if not very upbeat ending. I enjoyed this book and the trilogy thoroughly.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1 by Ryan North et al. and the Graphic Novels Challenge

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1: Squirrel Power written by Ryan North and art by Erica Henderson

There is no doubt that some Marvel Comics heroes have ridiculous superpowers. Mr. Fantastic can stretch into any shape. Ant-Man can shrink to microscopic sizes and can control ants. So a teenager with squirrel powers isn't so surprising. Squirrel Girl originally appeared in 1990 when she and her cohort of squirrels defeated Doctor Doom. Ironman was there but he didn't do much helping (to be honest, Tony Stark was more damsel-in-distress than knight-in-shining-armor). Marvel has reintroduced the character in 2015 and this trade paperback includes the first four issues along with that original adventure with Ironman and Doctor Doom.

Doreen Green is Squirrel Girl and she's been living in the Avengers Mansion attic for a while. She decides to go to college and have a bit of a regular life. She keeps running into trouble. Her roommate has a cat (which is against college rules but the roommate doesn't care). The cat does get along with Tippy-Toe, Doreen's pet squirrel (who is also her sidekick when fighting villains). So things work out. On campus, Kraven the Hunter shows up. Doreen suits up and heads out for a big fight in the campus woods. She does as much talking as using her powers to send Kraven packing. Will she be great enough to defeat Galactus, whose approach to the planet Earth has only been detected by the squirrels?

The stories are silly but fun. I laughed often while reading and found her naive optimism charming (a refreshing change from the dark, brooding comics that seem to dominate the current market). The art is bright and cartoony, also a refreshing change from the overly violent and sexualized content in other comics. If you want lots of light-hearted chuckles, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is right up your alley.

This is the last graphic novel of 2015, concluding my participation in the 8th annual Graphic Novels and Manga Challenge. I hit 55 of 52, so I exceeded the goal! Here's the other 54:
  1. Wolverine: Old Man Logan--reviewed here.
  2. Saga Volume 2--reviewed here.
  3. Saga Volume 3--reviewed here.
  4. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise - Part One--reviewed here.
  5. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise - Part Two--reviewed here.
  6. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise - Part Three--reviewed here
  7. Serenity Volume 4: Leaves on the Wind--reviewed here
  8. The Last Airbender Prequel: Zuko's Story--reviewed here.
  9. Messiah: Origin--reviewed here
  10. Cartoon Guide to Economics: Vol. 1--reviewed here
  11. The Book of Genesis Illustrated--reviewed here.
  12. Anne Frank--reviewed here
  13. Megillat Esther--reviewed here
  14. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search - Part One--reviewed here.
  15. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search - Part Two--reviewed here.  
  16. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search - Part Three--reviewed here
  17. Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories--reviewed here
  18. Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy--reviewed here
  19. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift - Part One--reviewed here.
  20. Free Comic Book Day issues--reviewed here!
  21. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift - Part Two--reviewed here.
  22. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift - Part Three--reviewed here.
  23. The Walking Dead TP 22--reviewed here.
  24. Green Lantern New 52 Volume 4--reviewed here.
  25. Itty Bitty Hellboy--reviewed here.
  26. Saga Volume 4--reviewed here.
  27. Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai--reviewed here.
  28. Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1952--reviewed here.
  29. Contract with God Trilogy--reviewed here.
  30. Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Donner Dinner Party--reviewed here.
  31. Baltimore: Passing Stranger and Other Stories--reviewed here.
  32. Avengers: Rage of Ultron--reviewed here.
  33. The Walking Dead TP 23--reviewed here.
  34. The Best of The Spirit--reviewed here.
  35. Twilight Zone: Deaths-Head Revisited--reviewed here.
  36. Justice League: Trinity War--reviewed here
  37. Fray--reviewed here.
  38. Batman '66 Vol. 1--reviewed here.
  39. Pride of Baghdad--reviewed here.
  40. Animal Crackers--reviewed here
  41. The Black Island--reviewed here.
  42. Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!--reviewed here.
  43. The Sword Vol. 1--reviewed here.
  44. The Sword Vol. 2--reviewed here.
  45. The Sword Vol. 3--reviewed here.
  46. The Sword Vol. 4--reviewed here.
  47. Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood--reviewed here.
  48. Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor--reviewed here.
  49. Batman: The Long Halloween--reviewed here.
  50. Avatar: Smoke and Shadow Part One--reviewed here.
  51. The Walking Dead TP 24--reviewed here.
  52. Secret Coders Vol. 1--reviewed here.
  53. Batman: Hush--reviewed here.
  54. Frankenstein Underground--reviewed here.

I am going to go for another 52 in 2016 for the next challenge. I'll probably start the Fables series or Morning Glories. Click on the picture below to find out more about the challenge!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas 2015

We put our tree up the weekend before Christmas in the hopes of having less time for the toddler to knock it down or yank the ornaments, lights, etc., from the branches. Also, we put it in the basement, where he only goes with strict supervision lest he reprogram the Xbox, Wii, stereo, etc.

Our tree

The blessed day finally came. My eight-year old son, who has been hoping and wishing to receive a Wii U for Christmas got up at 5 a.m. He couldn't open presents before everyone else got up but the night before I told him he could look at the presents. He spent some time determining which present was mostly likely the deepest desire of his heart and was pretty sure he had it pegged. Two hours later, once everyone else was up, he opened that package first. The initial corner of the box didn't look like a Wii U so he was feeling disappointed (and looking it too). Further tearing brought joy to his heart and face. We now own the Wii U with Mario Kart 8 pre-installed. He didn't want to go to Grandmama's house so he could play more.

J plays...

...Mario Kart 8

Playing with Mommy

My daughter picked out some presents for me from the local grocery store, which were these:

For daddy dearest!

As you can see, the white fudge-covered pretzels were sampled immediately, not so much the Scrub Daddy sponges (in fun colors!). Soon enough I discovered the real reason she bought them--she wanted to use them!

Washing dishes

Funny face

I should not complain since this establishes two important precedents. First, she can wash dishes. I can't wait for the next revision of the chore chart. Second, it's okay to buy gifts that are really for the giver and not the receiver. She's into crafts, I think I'll buy her a beer-making kit next year.

The toddler went down for a nap which meant we went to Mass in shifts. Naturally, my son and I took the later shift so we, I mean, he could get his fill in of Mario Kart bliss.

After the toddler's nap and lunch at home (we hoped no restaurants were open on Christmas day), we drove to Grandmama's house. The toddler was as cute as he could be, charming everyone there.

Cuddling with Grandmama

Playing with presents

Playing with big sister

My older son was also quite happy at Grandmama's. He received three other highly cherished items: a watch, a Magic 8 ball, and a t-shirt. The shirt was a cool Minecraft Creeper diagram. The most important part of the shirt was the "cool" part. The weather on the east coast has been unseasonably warm (the high was 70 Fahrenheit on Christmas Day) and he had been wearing a long sleeve polo shirt that was far too warm for the weather. He changed shirts immediately! Later he snoozed with his prized gifts on the shoulder of a prized auntie.

Best Christmas ever?

We hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Book Review: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum with illustrations by Michael Hague

Providing Santa Claus with a back story seems a bit unnecessary. His breadth of cultural presence is so far reaching that people don't think about where he came from. He's been around since time immemorial. He has little differences here and there but his basic characteristics are universal--big, generous, bearded old guy with a red suit. But from whence did he come?

L. Frank Baum (the writer of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) doesn't bother with historical or literary research. Instead, he weaves a new tale going back to Santa's infancy. Like many literary heroes, in this version the infant is left as a baby on the edge of a woods. He is discovered by a wood nymph named Necile. She becomes his foster mother and raises him among the other immortal mythological creatures of the woods. She names him "Claus" which means "little one" in their language. He grows to love the outdoors and his fellow creatures. As a youth, he is taken by Ak, chief of the immortals, to see other humans. Claus falls in love with children, especially the poor ones who have nothing to cheer them. He moves to his own home and begins making toys for local children to cheer them. Bit by bit, elements of Santa's mythology (chimneys, stockings, trees, reindeer, etc.) are pulled into the story. By the end Santa Claus is up and running with all the details from the stories we know (much like James Bond at the end of Skyfall, actually).

The book is very charming and whimsical. Baum has a knack for inventing details and writing in a fairy story style. The illustrations in the edition I read are delightful. I am surprised that the story doesn't have more prominence among other Christmas classics. It does lack the compelling villain (like in It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas) found in other classics.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Library Christmas Storytimes 2015

December story times at the Savage Branch of the Howard County Library are always a fun time because they have two weeks of Christmas celebrities visiting.

The first week Frosty the Snowman came to the library. My toddler and I went to the storytime and enjoyed the songs, stories, and massive crowd. Toward the end, the librarian handed out a craft. My toddler has no fine motor skills (except for putting coins in piggy bank slots) so I gave him a bunch of help.

Snow man craft without any snow!

During the craft, the special guest showed up, to the delight and amazement of all gathered.

Who's there?


We finished up the craft (that means I finished up the craft) and then headed off to a different part of the library for the Frosty photo op.

Where does the nose go?

A finished product

I'd like to tell a charming story of how my toddler was too frightened to sit on Frosty's lap or even stand next to him, but truth be told, he doesn't have the focus for that right now (another problem with doing the craft). I was able to get a picture with both of them in the frame:

Frosty with the "What's going on?" look

Later, in the car my toddler did finish the craft...finish it off, that is!

A fate worse than melting?

The next week was Santa's turn to show up. Unfortunately, there was a scheduling snafu with the North Pole and we only had a Santa craft and not the jolly old elf himself.

Getting supplies

Opening a glue stick--danger ahead!
Results with a little help from dad

The trip home for Santa wasn't nearly as traumatic, mostly because he rode in the front seat of the van.

Safely home (to our home, at least)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Dicemasters: Ant-Man OP December 2015

My son has retired from the Dicemasters circuit since his triumphant finale with the DC Trinity War storyline. So the next superhero event at our friendly local gaming store was a solo outing for me. This event was the Ant-Man Organized Play. We had a rainbow draft of the new Amazing Spider-Man set and built a team of eight based on the cards and dice that we selected. My team was all friends of Spider-Man, but the Wall Crawler himself was not in the group.

My team

I'm not up on all the recent Marvel history, so characters like Scarlet Spider, Spider-Girl, and Agent Venom (isn't Venom a bad guy?) are new to me. They have some great abilities that made them worth putting on the team. Scarlet Spider is a solid fighter at a low cost; Spider-Girl has a special ability where if the opponent has more dice on the field, when she's fielded she does three damage to one character. That ability came in handy several times. Firestar has a similar ability, but only does special damage to villain characters, so she was handy against villain teams. The most potent card I had was the super-rare Black Cat. She would force an opponent to re-roll all fielded dice if she was fielded when the opponent has more dice. I only got to use the ability once but it was a golden moment, clearing away opponents so I could deliver lethal damage.

We had five people playing, which meant that every round one player had to sit out (which counts as a win but is nowhere near as satisfying). I played in the first round and was able to win with a combo of Scarlet Spiders and Spider-Girls. In the second round, my opponent didn't have any villains so Firestar never came out. The match was close since my opponent kept pinging me with Black Widows (who deal damage even when knocked out). I held out and was able to finish the job. I also played in the third round (so I never got to sit out) and was able to use Black Cat against Rhino and a side kick. Rhino re-rolled from level three to level one which was a big help. I managed to win the final round as well!

With my victory came a special Ultron card (Nanite Virus) only available from organized play and the participation card, a special art version of Ant-Man Biophysicist.

OP rewards!

It was an exciting day and I look forward to future events in 2016!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)--No Spoilers

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) directed by J. J. Abrams

A new evil has arisen in the galaxy, the First Order. They are on the verge of kicking out the new Republic which has been supporting the Resistance (led by General Leia Organa) to the First Order's influence. Key players in the First Order are using the Dark Side of the Force and storm troopers, so everyone (people in the story and us watching the movie) knows they are bad. The Resistance is trying to find Luke Skywalker. He mysteriously disappeared many years ago but an old friend of Leia's has a map showing where he went. The hope is he can restore order to the galaxy since there are no good Jedi around, only the evil ones. The map is given to a cute droid on a desert planet in the middle of a battle. The droid falls in with a local scavenger and a storm trooper who quits the First Order. Both people help get the droid back to the Resistance, a tough assignment if there ever was one.

The plot unfolds at a good pace and has the right blend of seriousness and humor to keep things enjoyable and exciting if not always believable. The movie has too many visual references to the previous movies but I didn't find them annoying. They just made things too predictable (so maybe they were slightly annoying). Harrison Ford is in fine form as Han Solo and the rest of the cast is also good. The main villain, Kylo Ren, is appropriately menacing even if he is a little too similar to Darth Vader (who the character is trying to emulate). Abrams restrained himself from putting in all those silly lens flares that are in the Star Trek movies and Super 8, for which I am grateful. The Star Wars franchise is a better fit for him as a director since it is more about action and fights and mystical mumbo-jumbo.

This is not a great film but it is great fun. Among the Star Wars movies, it's tied with Return of the Jedi, which is lightyears above any of the prequels. Given more time (and more viewings) I could figure out which is the better film.

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) co-written and directed by George Miller

Mad Max (Tom Hardy) winds up a blood donor for a low-level combat driver in a post-apocalyptic town where the main commodity is water. Water is pumped up from deep underground and given to the locals to keep them local. The leader is a fellow named Immortal Joe. He maintains the water distribution, trades with Gas Town and Bullet Town, has an army to caravan the water around, and has a group of wives. Or he had a group of wives--they've snuck out in one of the water delivery trucks driven by Imperator Furiosa (an unrecognizable Charlize Theron). She is taking them to a green place, the Land of Many Mothers, where they won't have to be incubators for Immortal Joe's offspring. Joe doesn't take kindly to them leaving and mounts up a retrieval mission. The combat driver brings Max along so he'll have enough blood (they are attached by a tube after all). It's a slim excuse to get Max into the action but it does get him there. Lots of road chases and fights follow.

The real star of the movie is the amazingly inventive action sequences. No two vehicles are the same and they are all DIY smash-ups of at least three vehicles. Some are mounted with harpoons; some with flame throwers; some with really big guns; some with cow-catchers; some with plows (it makes sense in the moment they are used but at no other time); some with cranes; some with big long sticks with a harness on the end so guys can come flying in to attack another vehicle and fly back out (also only makes sense when they are used); most vehicles have combinations of the foregoing. With all this random equipment, the forces of good and evil can have plenty of tightly-choreographed and eye-popping battles. The sequences are well-shot and edited so viewers can follow the action and know who is where (which doesn't always happen in modern action films). It's breath-taking and fun and completely bonkers.

Sure, there's references to hope in hopeless circumstances, and how people aren't things and shouldn't be treated like things, and characters seeking redemption. But that is all more or less window-dressing to give viewers something to care about in the slight pauses between the amazing action sequences. This is a high-octane, over-the-top action film with just enough heart in it to hold things together.

Monday, December 21, 2015

One Ingredient Challenge: Clotted Cream

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.

One of the things we miss from England is the scones with jam and clotted cream. Clotted cream is virtually unknown in America. We found a recipe in the ever popular Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. This recipe is on page 70:

Ingredients: 5 cups heavy cream (not ultrapasteurized)
  1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees F. Pour the cream into a wide heatproof bowl and place in the oven. No need to cover. Let it "cook" for 12 hours.
  2. Remove the bowl from the oven, cover, and refrigerate overnight. In the morning you will have a bowl that contains 2 layers of cream--one very thick, one very thin. With a slotted spoon, scoop the thick cream into another bowl or jar. You can eat immediately, slathered over warm scones, or cover and chill for up to 5 days.
Makes 1 1/4 cups.

The toughest part of the recipe was finding the right heavy cream. All of our usual grocery stores have only ultra-pasteurized cream. We did find cream that's merely pasteurized at Wegmans. It costs more than ultra-pasteurized, even though it has been processed less. However, it was worth it because...the result was fabulous!

Final result!

Of course, we made scones to go with it and had a fancy bit of tea on Granny's birthday.

Yummy spread

A cute waitress too!

Also, I'd like to note that this is probably the ultimate one ingredient challenge, since it does indeed have only one ingredient!

Friday, December 18, 2015

TV Review: Doctor Who The Tomb of the Cybermen

Doctor Who The Tomb of the Cybermen written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis

The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) travels with Jaime and Victoria to Telos, home of the Cybermen. An archeological expedition from Earth is there as well. They all meet at the electrified doorway to the tomb of the Cybermen (who have been dormant for hundreds of years). The Doctor helps them get inside and they explore the various rooms. The Doctor is very cautious about exploring the tomb and uncovering its secrets. The place has a good, creepy atmosphere and lots of weird gadgets. Cyberman technology is based on symbolic logic so they have to overcome plenty of puzzles to get things to work. It makes for good drama and the fun techno-babble. As things progess, it is clear that the financiers of the expedition have an ulterior motive in searching for the Cybermen.

Troughton as the Doctor is great fun. He has a disheveled look and wry sense of humor that belie his brilliant, calculating mind.  He has wonderful chemistry with his companions, the 17th century Scotsman Jaime and the Victorian-era Victoria.

The visual effects are all over the place. The "defrosting" of the Cybermen looks impressive. On the other hand, in a fight scene a wire and harness on one character is blatantly obvious. At first, I thought, "What is that thing sticking out of his back?" but then saw him lifted up by another character. The music and sound effects are top-notch, building some great atmosphere.

This is a fun, classic adventure with the Doctor.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Benedict XVI

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Benedict XVI

Before his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI finished a third volume of theological reflections on the life of Jesus. He describes this book as an "antechamber" (p. xi) to the other volumes. Here he looks chiefly at the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke, the birth and early childhood of Jesus. He considers the intent of the authors in what they wrote, various historical interpretations and understandings of what they wrote (including present-day exegesis of the texts), and the practical impact these writing should have for us.

His explanations of events and their various interpretations is quite clear and insightful. For example, he discusses the manger as the first resting place of the infant Jesus. In addition to the obvious idea that this shows Jesus's humility, Benedict discusses it as the first altar from which Jesus's sacrificial life begins. The manger is a feeding trough for animals, a subtle and surprising parallel to the table of the Last Supper (and by extension, to our churches' altars) where Jesus offers His own flesh as food for us. The book is overflowing with many similar and profound insights.

Another impressive feature of Benedict's writing is his honesty when considering some probably unsolvable problems. He discusses the star that led the Magi to Israel. During the two thousand years since the words were written various possibilities have been considered: a supernova, the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces, etc. While all are interesting and have various implications, Benedict notes that identifying the exact astronomical phenomenon is probably impossible. Additionally, how the magi came to interpret this phenomenon as the announcement of a new king in Israel will always be "an open question." (p. 100)

The former pope's book on Jesus's infancy is well worth reading, especially during Advent as Christians across the world prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Catonsville Clash 2015

We went to a second chess competition, this time much closer to home. It was the Catonsville Clash just outside Baltimore and sponsored by Silver Knights. We had a little problem parking--the school hosting the tournament had a small, full parking lot by ten minutes before the start. We found some street parking and headed in.

Catonsville Clash 2015

My son was excited to see that he was put in the intermediate level. He was paired with a boy rated 661, 195 points higher than my son. The game was unfortunately quick and a loss for my son. He took it in stride.

The first game

The second pairing was against an unranked opponent (we couldn't figure out why he was in the intermediate group). The game was a quick victory and a ego boost for my son.

Second game--a somber beginning, a happy ending!

We had a snack in the break room. I'd brought some stuff but tried the snack bar. We got a cookie for two dollars and a cupcake for four. Yikes, I hope the vendor is going to a great university (or that I can get the vendor contract for the next competition)!

The break room/gym

Game three was another overrated opponent  (640s) and another loss. It was a tough game and a hard time for my son.

Game three

The final game was someone closer to my son's level but was still a hard fight. My son came back sad but not crying like many other competitors that day.

Getting ready for the final match

He was quiet in the car coming home and went to his room for a while. Then the toddler and I joined him. The toddler took to resorting the Legos from one big bowl to another while my son started reading a book to me, which cheered him up immensely (especially when the toddler tried to climb the bunk bed to listen!). So the day ended on a happy note.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

First Confession

This year our oldest is in second grade which is the year for first confession and communion. In the Fall his class has prepared for first confession (also known as the sacrament of reconciliation and of penance), which has gone about as smoothly as it could go. We had many good discussions at the dinner table about sin and responsibility for your actions. In the week before the sacrament, he got more nervous and had more questions about how to confess and what to confess. The religious education preparation was great but it's hard to avoid first time jitters.

We went to the first reconciliation service on a Wednesday night. He received a number, which indicated where we'd sit for the service and which priest (of the eight present) would hear his confession. He also received a stone, which was explained later.

The service began with some songs and prayers. Then the pastor spoke briefly about the importance of reconciliation. He had a large, red construction-paper heart in his hand. He talked about how sin hurts our hearts because it makes us less loving. Each time we sin, our hearts get smaller and smaller. He took away the big heart, which had a smaller heart behind it. As he talked more, he took away the smaller heart to reveal an even smaller one. Then he explained how sin, if repeated and not repented, hardens your heart so that it is easier and easier to sin, and harder and harder to love. He finally revealed a small stone, which he said is a heart shrunk and hardened by sin. The children were to give their stones to the priest when they confessed to symbolize their desire not to have their hearts turned to stone. The whole thing was surprising effective.

My son had to wait for a few other children to confess before it was his turn. He was more and more nervous as time went by. I told him that I thought waiting in line for confession was probably the worst part for me but that it felt great when it was done. He went up and received the sacrament, giving up his rock. He came back with a joyous look on his face.

On the way out, they had a table in the narthex with those "That was easy" buttons from Staples. Each penitent got to push the button and get a special little booklet to take home. My son was happy to push it, as was his twenty-month younger sister.

That was easy!

To celebrate we went to Chick-fil-A for dessert--a cookie for him, ice cream for his sister, and a split milk shake for Mommy and Daddy.

We arrived home later than the usual bed time, which meant wash-cloth baths for the kids. After they put on their pajamas, J reminded us to say our family evening prayer. At the end, we each give thanks to God for something in our day. J did the usual thanks for family and friends. Then he added, "and thanks for a great confession."

Monday, December 14, 2015

Game Review: Firefly the Board Game by Gale Force Nine

Firefly the Board Game published by Gale Force Nine

The Firefly television show was tragically canceled in the midst of its first season. It's enduring popularity is due to the overall quality of the show and the great blend of various ideas (it's a science fiction show with a storyline reminiscent of a western set after the American Civil War; American and Chinese cultures are heavily blended in this future). The show has lived on in comics, a movie, and several board games. The first Firefly boardgame (and maybe the best) is Firefly the Board Game.

The 'Verse

Players start the game with a Firefly-class ship, an engine, $3000, and a captain of their choosing (the captain deck includes Malcolm Reynolds among other minor characters from the show). A scenario is chosen (e.g. the beginning scenario has players earning enough money to pay for their ship and going to a certain planet with that money). Then they place their ships on the board and draw one mission from each of the various employers (Niska, Badger, Patience, Harken, Ammon Duul), keeping three of the mission cards. Then regular play starts as the captains recruit crew members, buy equipment and ship upgrades, work on missions, and get new missions from the employers. All the while they also need to dodge the Reavers and, if they are outlaws (they have warrants or contraband or fugitives), avoid the Alliance ship.

Captains (and the cool back of the card)

The crew members can be just about any named character from the show along with some generic Mechanics, Soldiers, Medics, Companions, etc. They cost a certain amount to recruit which is also the cut they get from the profits whenever a mission is completed. They have skills (represented by skills icons for Persuasion, Fighting, and Mechanical abilities), sometimes special abilities (like getting extra money or supplies from certain types of missions), and sometimes some flavor text, though often the special skill is related to their character.


Players can buy upgrades to their ships, which are different types of engines, more cargo space, or special equipment, like a Cry Baby that helps dodge the Alliance or a Medical Bay which gives killed crew member a chance not to die. They can also buy equipment, like weapons, tech, and even fancy duds (like Kaylee's pink dress or a shiny neck tie) to help with skills checks when completing missions.


Upgrades to your Firefly

The missions are two basic types: pick up and deliver between two planets (mostly shipping cargo or people) or performing some (usually illegal) activity at one planet. A player does the illegal activity by resolving a certain number (usually one to three) of Misbehave cards, which require the player's captain and crew to get by a skills check.  Players have to add up how many symbols of a certain type their crew and their equipment has and add that to a die role to see if they pass the check. If the number isn't high enough, dire consequences!

Various missions

Misbehave Cards (and the cool back of the card)

The game captures the feel of the show quite well. The components are high quality (even the fake cash!) and the art and photos are drawn from the show. The missions fit the character of the employers and completing them is satisfying. The big challenge with the game is the slow ramp-up. Starting with just a captain and a ship means players have to spend the first part of the game on collecting resources to complete missions or avoid hazards like the Reavers. It makes the game longer, usually over two hours. But once things get going, the game is exciting and enjoyable.

Set-up for a solo game

ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE APPROPRIATENESS: The game has a lot of stuff in it, making it heavy to carry around. Also, it needs a lot of set-up space which may not be an option if you are wandering through a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland. If you are hunkered down in a bunker or super-secure gated community, you probably will have the space and the time to enjoy this game. And there are solo missions, so you can play by yourself.